Agricultural productivity growth – the increase in yield per unit (land/animal) – depends largely on technological innovation and the adoption of new seeds, new equipment, new genetics, as well as effective animal medicine.
Over the years South African farmers rapidly adopted new technology – either imported or developed from our own research and development processes at the Agricultural Research Council, universities and private sector. This has set South Africa’s agricultural sector, apart from much of the African countries in terms of output per hectare.
It is obvious that governments need to regulate any new inputs to ensure that humans, animals and the environment will not be harmed by the introduction of new chemicals, fertilizers or seeds. This regulatory process requires independent scientific assessments and evaluation of the trial data provided by the technology developers/innovators.
Some of these new inputs are often urgently needed to counter plant diseases or animal diseases that impact negatively and therefore the government processes must be agile, fast and rigorous to ensure the timely release of these new inputs to farmers and businesses.
The South African regulators and farmers have always been eager and flexible to adopt new technologies, including biological and mechanical innovations. This has helped the country to be nearly on par with the likes of Brazil in terms of crop yields per hectare. An example of this flexibility is South Africa’s openness to adopting genetically modified maize seeds widely in the 2001/02 season, which then contributed to the increase in yields.
The countries that did not follow this path experienced decline or subdued crop yields over the past couple of decades. For South Africa to remain competitive amongst the leading agricultural producers in the world in a range of crops, fruit and vegetables, role-players in the sector, especially regulators, should be more open to adopting and importing new technologies.
Unfortunately, this is not how things are progressing currently. Farmers, input manufacturers and organised agriculture has expressed their concern about the long delays in getting critical inputs approved by the office of the registrar of the Fertilizers, Farm Feeds, Seeds and Remedies Act 36 of 1947. There is an urgent need to overhaul and modernise that system and to deal with the large backlog of applications for new chemicals and new medicines.
For future gains and maintaining the country’s agricultural productivity, the same energy and dedication of the early 2000s to new technologies should be revitalised. Simultaneously, the regulators will have to apply the rigorous testing of the technologies before being adopted for commercial use in South Africa. With that said, if our peer agriculture countries such as South America, Canada, Australia and the United States have already adopted new agriculture technologies, then South Africa is inclined to take lessons from them and consider moving the same path to maintain our competitiveness. The slow adoption of agricultural technology is what, in part, has plunged numerous African countries into the low yielding agricultural sector and rural poverty.
South Africa has designated agriculture as one of the sectors that will drive economic recovery and rural economic activity for the coming years. This means the seed industry and various agrochemicals ideal for agricultural progress should be made available by the regulators to the farming community to attain this national goal. As such, the multiple streams of the Agriculture and Agro-processing Master Plan, which is the country’s plan based on a social compact to drive agricultural progress, should prioritise the inputs and take to heart various hindrances that agribusiness role-players and commodity associations highlight about the slowing trend of technology adoption in the country in the recent past.
In an environment of changing climate and erratic weather conditions, better or improved seeds and agrichemicals should be encouraged, while maintaining the regulators’ rigorous testing before adopting products for commercial use is vital. Disappointingly, the anecdotal evidence of the growing sentiment about the reluctance of the South African agricultural regulators to approve the release of new technologies presents large risks for the competitiveness of the agricultural sector in the coming years.
Admittedly, this is an economic view, and there are undoubtedly scientific considerations that are essential before countries make any notable calls for the adoption of technologies. Still, this is a matter that should be well discussed, and there should be close collaboration between agribusinesses, commodity organisations and government.
Ultimately, we should remember that our common interest is prosperous and inclusive South African agriculture and agribusiness sector. While differences in opinion might exist about various technologies and registration of new agrochemicals, such should be discussed with speed and ensure that in the process, maintaining and boosting South Africa’s agricultural productivity is an ultimate goal for all role-players involved.
This essay first appeared in The Herald, 24 November 2021
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