The response by sugarcane farmers to extreme and unpredictable weather patterns as a direct result of Climate Change and the innovative management of water and soils for environmental sustainability topped the agenda at the Netafim 2nd Irrigated Cane Conference hosted recently in Durban.

With 70 representatives from across the industry and 28 delegates from 28 different countries, the conference discussions focused on high-tech solutions for the most effective and efficient management of water and soils using sub-surface drip irrigation.

Topics ranged from best practice in Brazil (climate, cane and irrigation profitability), the use of drones and remote sensing in irrigation monitoring and using subsurface drip irrigation for the application of herbicides and fertilizers, or plant protection, to name a few.

Following the 2-day conference international delegates were hosted on field tours in northern KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland by the major milling groups, Illovo Sugar Africa, Tongaat Hulett and the Royal Swazi Sugar Company.

Netafim is considered a leading company across the globe in the development and applications of smart irrigation solutions supported by engineering, project management and financial services.

Opening the conference, Etienne Erasmus, the Managing Director for Netafim South Africa, said between South Africa and Swaziland at least 35 000ha of sugarcane was under irrigation. “The 13 000ha of sugarcane under irrigation at Simunye in Swaziland is still the biggest unit of sugarcane under sub-surface drip irrigation in the world,” Erasmus said.

Guest speaker, Johannes Moller, who is the recent past President of AgriSA hailed the sugar industry as one of the most important contributors to the country’s economy and in particular, for its leadership in tackling the challenges of land reform.

But he stressed, the management of water on the redistributed land was now of “utmost importance”.

Moller said just 4% of the country’s surface area consisted of high potential arable land with an average of less than 250mm of rainfall-a-year. “And yet we are listed 44th on the DuPont Global Food Security Index and we are by far the most food secure country in Africa,” Moller said.

Further, if the country’s agriculture sector was managed efficiently farmers could produce enough food to feed at least 150 million people with food exports enough for another 90 million. 

In the last quarter of this year agriculture grew by 22% and according to Moller, the agriculture sector alone had the ability to keep the country on a 5% growth path.

But he said, a lack of policy based on sound economics for the growth or agriculture and the promotion of rural development was creating a  “highly urbanised” population.

“About 65% of South Africa’s citizens have been urbanised and live in the cities. And we are still urbanising by 600 000 people from a population of 55 million a year. So that is about 50 000 in a month or 10 000 people have moved to our cities in the last week.”

Moller said for the government’s land policies to work they must be moved away from ideology to sound economic principles.

He said a recent presentation of a land audit by AgriSA had revealed that prior to 1994, 85% of agricultural land was owned by white commercial farmers, now over 23% of that land was owned by black farmers and the government and less than 77% by white commercial farmers.

“We have made great strides since 1994, however more importantly is the efficient use of water on the land that has been redistributed.”

He said as a result AgriSA had developed a “risk desk” to assist farmers to respond appropriately to environmental risks, such as Climate Change as well as economic and political risk. We have also taken the management of disaster funding into our own hands through the development of the Smart Disaster Aid Policy, which was formulated earlier this year. We are no longer waiting for government to distribute aid in times of disaster, for example during the recent drought. We are making sure that our farmers are well informed and supported in a proactive way so that they are able to manage any disaster more effectively, ” he said.

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