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Technology, the future of Agriculture?

09 May 2019
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Technology agriculture

Agriculture continues to be a progressing industry in the Eastern Cape, and as it strives to grow so does the pressure on it to meeting the demands of the future. These factors range from demographics, climate change and politics. In this month’s blog, we look at how technology can be utilised to ease the current pressures on the agricultural sector and make an attempt in answering the question of – is technology the future of agriculture?

Before we dive in an attempt to answer this question, we look at the different pressures the agriculture industry faces. We unpack each one in a bid to understand them better, thereby leveraging that to equip ourselves in answering the question at hand fully.

Demographics

South Africa's population growth up to 2030 will be driven by positive natural change and moderate net migration. Despite the rapid increase in older age groups and falling birth rates, South Africa will stay an overwhelmingly young country with the youth continuing to account for over a quarter of the population by 2030. Urban population will continue to swell, with Gauteng expanding at the most substantial rate out of the other provinces, however smaller urban areas should see even faster growth.

If we look at the impacts of an increase in population the first thing that comes to mind is food security. This means an increase in demand is inevitable. This increase comes with a global diet change too, as a result of shifting demographics: There’s currently a growing demand for high-value animal protein, a trend that (in addition to natural population growth) is being driven by urbanisation and rising incomes. All this comes with pressure on agriculture to produce more quality products to meet the increased demand.

Farmers will now see themselves now having to produce 70% more food by 2050, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). And this food will need to be customised to the needs of a growing urban population, a factor that encompasses the entire agriculture value chain.

Climate Change

Denying that climate change is a role player in agriculture would be catastrophic. Climate change will affect every aspect of agriculture, the increasing variability of precipitation and more droughts and floods is likely to reduce harvests. Climate change will contribute to existing long-term environmental problems, such as groundwater depletion and soil degradation, which will affect food and agriculture production systems. Without concrete action taken to put measures in place to adapt to climate change, the whole agriculture industry will find itself in a state of a crisis as we’ve seen with the recent droughts.

Politics

The political climate of any country has a direct impact on its economy and subsectors thereof – this is, of course, the case with South Africa as well. From investment opportunities to the issue of land, the political sphere plays a vital role in agriculture. Statistics South Africa said the economy grew 1.4% in October-December 2018, after expanding by a revised 2.6% in the third quarter. Farming (Agriculture) – which was recovering after a drought – grew 7.9% in the quarter, while manufacturing rose 4.5%. Mining, however, fell 3.8%, the agency said.

“Agriculture made a positive contribution to growth, after having declined at a double-digit pace earlier on in 2018,” Standard Chartered Bank’s Chief Africa Economist Razia Khan said.

“A more normalised performance from agriculture should help boost South Africa‘s overall recovery,” she added.

These words echo the role played by agriculture in the overall GDP of the country and show that with a more stable political climate the country has potential to attract both domestic and foreign investment into the industry that continues to make significant contributions to the country’s GDP.

Is technology the future of agriculture?

Having looked at the three pressures experienced by agriculture; we now answer the question at hand.

“The traditional approach of the food industry is undergoing a fundamental transformation. The first technology revolution in agriculture made impressive strides: Between 1961 and 2004, cereal harvests in East Asia rose by 2.8% a year, or over 300% over the period, enabled by modern farming practices, including irrigation, use of fertilizers and pesticides, and the development of new and more productive crop varieties.” – (World Bank 2008). This alone indicates that technology plays a vital role in the advancement of the industry which in turn accommodates to the increased demand of the harvest.

Technology not only plays a role in commercial farmers but small-scale farmers as well enabling them to make their businesses more viable, therefore, will allow them to grow and contribute to the demand at hand.

"Sixty per cent of the world's unused land is in Africa. And one must acknowledge the difference between South Africa and north of the Limpopo, where predominantly smallholder farmers are responsible for 90% of the production in Africa," said Wynand Malan from Connected Farmer at Mezzanine.

"In South Africa, it's the exact opposite. 90% of production comes from commercial farms. So, there's an opportunity here. There's unused land, there are small farmers, and technology being introduced. It's possible, through education and training, by introducing new seed and fertiliser and granting subsidies, to increase the production of small farmers."

Well, it seems our question has been answered. Yes, technology is the future of agriculture. Have your say in the comments section, what is your take on technology within agriculture.