The dire consequences of climate change are revealing themselves every day across the world. The 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sixth assessment report has reinforced that, unless urgent action is taken, our collective futures are under threat.
In addition to myriad other risks, the impact of climate change on food security emerges strongly throughout the report. It is imperative that the global agricultural sector takes action to help address the impending crisis, yet the scale of the problem is itself an impediment to effective action. Agriculture, like all other economic sectors, has to navigate complex global guidelines, national laws and industry and sector-specific constraints. This is a challenge that the recently signed Agriculture and Agro-processing Master Plan must address so there can be clear and consistent action to combat climate change – with urgency.
To its credit, the plan does acknowledge the magnitude of climate change impacts on agriculture in South Africa and its strategic objectives specifically speak to enhancing resilience to the effects of climate change, promoting sustainable management of natural resources, and a commitment to a just energy transition .
However, the master plan does not elaborate on how this will be achieved. Rather, it leaves the responsibility with the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, and commodity organisations, to promote climate change adaptation and mitigation initiatives. Time might prove this approach to be unwise. A challenge of this magnitude cannot be managed in silos; the plethora of existing policies at multiple levels requires a more holistic approach.
Prior to the master plan, a number of sector bodies had already begun working on climate initiatives. Agri SA, for example, has been proactive in adopting a mandated position on climate change last year and is aiming to develop a climate change strategy for the sector. But these various frameworks will need to be harmonized to create a coherent, sectoral approach. This is true too of the policy and research mandated under the master plan. It isn’t enough to say we need public-private partnerships to conduct research; we need to put the structures in place to facilitate collaboration of this work, and sooner rather than later.
The challenge of coordination extends far beyond our sector and our national borders. National climate policy and legislation are mostly formed in line with international best practices through the UN Conference on Climate Change and the related Conference of the Parties (Cop) meetings held annually. The Paris Agreement is the most ambitious agreement since the international climate change commitments began in 1992. The Conference on Climate Change set the foundation for South African climate change law and policy development, while the Paris Agreement and the Glasgow Cop meeting last year put obligations on South Africa to implement a just transition strategy towards a greener economy. It is, therefore, imperative that the agricultural sector’s climate change strategy aligns with these commitments.
In the short term, we also need a new approach to disaster management. Natural disasters as a result of extreme weather occurrences are indisputably on the rise. Weak and unsustainable infrastructure, poverty, insufficient developmental funding, weak public policy, lack of information, corruption and uncoordinated management efforts aggravate the devastating consequences of natural disasters.
Yet, while the Agriculture and Agro-processing Master Plan recognizes the necessity of developing a comprehensive disaster support strategy, it takes a narrow view of disaster management. We need an approach that includes numerous interventions, such as early-warning systems, resilience building, education and awareness campaigns and improving insurance coverage with a focus on financial support for the aftermath of disasters.
On the legislative front, the Climate Change Bill is currently under consideration by the National Assembly will, once enacted, become the primary source of climate change law in South Africa. It will, together with other laws, policies and plans already in place to address climate change, promote adaptation and mitigation initiatives. Under the bill, all sectors will need to develop adaptation plans. Resources will need to be devoted to the integration of the sector’s plan, the master plan and the work of other government entities, including the departments of the environment, forestry and fisheries; water and sanitation and mineral resources; the National Disaster Management Center and the national treasury.
South Africa has a rapidly growing population, which will put it at greater risk of food insecurity unless we take urgent, well-coordinated action to combat climate change. Indeed, we have already experienced a number of serious occurrences over the past year with devastating consequences for entire industries and far too many households. We have no time to waste in taking the necessary steps to mitigate the impact of climate change on the daily lives of South Africans.
Finally, the strategy must align with reality. The master plan participants will need to ensure the steps implemented pursuant to our international and sectoral ambitions do not hurt the sector’s growth and employment creation potential, nor its central role in guaranteeing food security. We need to remember that the success of the sector depends on global competitiveness even as we work to shield our nation from the worst effects of climate change.
Having a plan is good but it’s not enough; effective implementation is what matters most. If we are going to prevent disruptions to food production that would dwarf the devastation of the recent past, we must work together to ensure effective, well-coordinated action to address the existential threat that climate change-related disasters pose to our nation’s food security.
Andrea Camper is the risk and disaster manager at Agri SA.