Several gases in the atmosphere trap energy from the sun – and warm the earth. Without this “greenhouse effect” life would not be possible on this planet. Our activities over the past two centuries though, especially the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil, have increased the building up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. More energy from the sun is being trapped and the earth is becoming warmer. “Global warming” refers to this enhanced greenhouse effect.

It is true that our planet goes through natural cycles of change, lasting hundreds of years. In that amount of time, though, plants and animals are able to adapt. The manner in which humanity is developing though has speeded up the changes in climate, leaving less time to adapt and placing our ecosystems in danger.

And so we are seeing more intense rainstorms, a decrease in rainfall frequency, droughts of higher intensity, greater rainwater runoff and thus soil erosion (Du Pisani 2020). These changes present serious challenges to agriculture and forestry, and to the societies and economies that depend on these sectors for food, fibre and livelihoods.

The 13th of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) addresses climate.

Causes and Effects of Climate Change (National Geographic, 2017), a three-minute video summary


Africa is already the hottest continent, and is expected to warm up to 1.5 times faster than the global average (IPCC, 2015; Arnoldi, 2020).

Prolonged drought is one of the most serious climatic hazards affecting the agricultural sector of the continent. Most of agricultural activities in African countries hinge on rain, and any adverse changes in the climate would likely have a devastating effect on the sector in the region, and the livelihood of the majority of the population.

Five main climate change related drivers: temperature, precipitation, sea level rise, atmospheric carbon dioxide content and incidence of extreme events, may affect the agriculture sector in the following ways:

  1. Reduction in crop yields and agriculture productivity. There is growing evidence that in the tropics and subtropics, where crops have reached their maximum tolerance, crop yields are likely to decrease due to an increase in the temperature.
  2. Increased incidence of pest attacks. An increase in temperature is also likely to be conducive for a proliferation of pests that are detrimental to crop production.
  3. Limit the availability of water. It is expected that there will be less water available in most parts of Africa. Particularly, there will be a severe down trend in the rainfall in Southern African countries and in the dry areas of countries around the Mediterranean Sea.
  4. Exacerbation of drought periods. An increase in temperature and a change in the climate throughout the continent are predicted to cause recurrent droughts in most of the region.
  5. Reduction in soil fertility. An increase in temperature is likely to reduce soil moisture, moisture storage capacity and the quality of the soil, which are vital nutrient for agricultural crops.
  6. Low livestock productivity and high production cost. Climate change will affect livestock productivity directly by influencing the balance between heat dissipation and heat production and indirectly through its effect on the availability of feed and fodder.
  7. Availability of human resource. Climate change is likely to cause the manifestation of vector and vector born diseases, where an increase in temperature and humidity will create ideal conditions for malaria, sleeping sickness and other infectious diseases that will directly affect the availability of human resources for the agriculture sector.

The impact of these adverse climate changes on agriculture is exacerbated in Africa by the lack of adapting strategies, which are increasingly limited owing to the lack of institutional, economic and financial capacity to support such actions.

Africa’s vulnerability to climate change and its inability to adapt to these changes may be devastating to the agriculture sector, the main source of livelihood to the majority of the population. The utmost concern should therefore be a better understanding of the potential impact of the current and projected climate changes on African agriculture and to identify ways and means to adapt and mitigate its detrimental impact.

Source: (now defunct)

Mitigation: what can we do to slow the process down?

Mitigation entails all human interventions that reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.

The enhanced greenhouse effect can be slowed down by following two guidelines:

  • increase sinks
  • decrease sources of greenhouse gases

A sink is a process which removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. For example: growing a tree where one did not previously exist provides a sink for carbon dioxide, because the tree “extracts” carbon dioxide for photosynthesis.

The energy sector is the largest single source of greenhouse gases in South Africa. Integrated energy planning at the national level should ensure the optimum overall mix of energy sources, with clean coal technologies expected to be part of such a mix for the medium-term future.

How can forests and forest resources be better harnessed to slow the pace of global warming, and communities be helped to adapt to the changing environment?


Proponents hope the world’s forests will be safeguarded by channelling billions of dollars from rich countries to developing ones through REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation in developing countries). An extension is REDD+ which includes the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.


Read more about the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF) at Information on REDD+ can be found at

The percentage of Agriculture’s contribution to climate change is disputed, and ranges from 22% down to somewhere between 10% and 5%. The largest portion of this is attributed to livestock (but see the note on the Savory Institute under the “International business environment” heading).


Research shows that agriculture has a huge potential to cost-effectively reduce greenhouse gases through changes in agricultural technologies and management practices, particularly in developed countries. Climate-smart agriculture includes proven practical techniques including mulching, intercropping, conservation agriculture, crop rotation, integrated crop-livestock management, agro-forestry, improved grazing and improved water management.


Climate changes create risks and uncertainty with potentially serious downsides. Without strong adaptation measures, climate change could reduce food crop production by 10 to 20 percent by the 2050s, with more severe losses in Africa. With nine billion people expected to inhabit the world by 2050, food production in Africa alone must be tripled, according to experts.

Climate Change and South African agriculture: impacts and adaption options

Farmers report having used the following strategies to cope with climate change:


(a) Adjustments in farming operations

  • Changes have been made in the planting dates of some crops.
  • Crops with a shorter growing period such as cabbage have been planted, as well as short season maize (120 days – 140 days).
  • There has been an increased use of crop rotation and the early harvesting of some crops. In KwaZulu-Natal for example, farmers prefer to cut their sugarcane at an early stage to avoid the loss of production due to the dryness of the cane (as a result of increased temperature) if they have to wait for the cane to mature in the field.

In the situation of heavier rainfall, concentrated in shorter periods and starting earlier (previously early September and now late October in some provinces), farmers have responded by-

  • delaying the start of the planting period;
  • the increased use of modern machinery to take advantage of the shorter planting period;
  • the collection of rain water by making furrows near the plants; and
  • the increased use of irrigation.

In response to higher temperatures, farmers have resorted to using

  • heat tolerant crop varieties;
  • crop varieties with high water use efficiency;
  • early maturing crop varieties, and increased crop and livestock farming (mixed farming). For example, because of the high temperatures, sugarcane farmers have shifted to producing macadamia nuts and tea, which they consider easier to irrigate than sugarcane.

Livestock farmers have also adopted numerous practices aimed at efficient use of water and scarce fodder. There is a general tendency to resort to more heat tolerant breeds rather than the traditional ones, and most livestock farmers now also produce their own fodder, such as lucerne or maize, and stock it for use during the long dry seasons. In response to the long drought periods, farmers have adjusted the stocking intensity of their livestock by selling their animals at younger ages. Another practice is to change the timing, duration and location of grazing.


(b) Increased chemical application

  • With higher temperature and increased evapotranspiration, farmers have resorted to increased application of chemicals such as Erian to slow down evapotranspiration.
  • They also apply more farm manure to keep the moisture content of the soil higher and retain the soil fertility.
  • More lime is also applied to maintain the soil’s correct pH balance.


(c) Increased use of irrigation

  • With water being the most important factor limiting agriculture in South Africa, irrigation appears to be the most appropriate adaptive strategy. Hence 65% of the respondents choose irrigation as an option to adjust to climatic changes.
  • Farmers have also shifted from flood irrigation to sprinkler irrigation for an efficient use of the limited water.
  • Several farms have also built their own boreholes to make effective use of underground water.
  • There has also been increased use of wetlands for agricultural production.


(d) Shade and shelter

  • When it is hot, livestock farmers plant trees to provide natural shades for their livestock or as a wind or hail storm break. In South Africa, farmers generally plant pine trees and Acacia karoo and Celtis africana trees for this purpose.
  • In some instances, farmers use fishnets, grass, and plastics as coverings to protect their plants against dryness and heat, and cold and frost.
  • Heating provided by firewood and paraffin heaters is also used by livestock farmers to protect their animals against the cold.


(e) Conservation practices

  • In response to the increased occurrence of droughts farmers have adopted various soil conservation practices in order to maintain or improve soil moisture and fertility.
  • Principally to fight erosion, farmers have built many small dams or planted trees around their farms.
  • Farmers have also increased their fallow periods by as much as one to two agricultural seasons (instead of continuous cropping), to allow the land to restore its nutrients.
  • Another conservation technique farmers use to protect the soil against erosion is to keep the crop residues of the previous harvest on the land. To preserve soil moisture, cool the soil surface and stabilise soil temperature, they used mulching (layers of muck, peat, compost and plastics) to cover the land.
  • To avoid excessive extraction of nutrients in the soil of their farms, farmers have also reduced the density of crops or livestock on their land.


(f) Other practices

  • To reduce the risk of losing income when farm produce decreases as a result of the increased variability in the climate, some (especially large-scale farmers) have insured their farms, while others (especially small-scale farmers) are increasing their involvement in non-farm activities.
  • Most large-scale farmers have also opted to taking lower risks by reducing their cropping areas to manageable sizes.


Source: adapted from the paper Climate Change and South African Agriculture: Impacts and Adaptation Options by James KA Benhin

The Bureau for Food & Agricultural Policy (BFAP) Baseline 2021-2030 includes a discussion on climate change in the introductory chapter “Fostering Growth and sustainability of inclusive food chains”. Find the document at

National strategy and government contact

South Africa’s commitment to climate change interventions is guided by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Millennium Declaration and the Paris Climate Agreement.

South Africa’s climate change bill has not yet been approved, and so the National Climate Change Response White Paper (approved by Cabinet in 2011), and the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (NCCAS) (approved in 2020) guide South Africa’s response to climate change. In February 2022 the Climate Change Bill was formally introduced in parliament.

Seven Climate Change Flagship Programmes were identified in 2018 to scale up the country’s response to climate change:

1. The Water Conservation and Demand Management Flagship Programme;
2. The Renewable Energy Flagship Programme;
3. The Energy Efficiency and Energy Demand Management Flagship Programme;
4. The Transport Flagship Programme;
5. Agriculture, Food Systems and Food Security Flagship Programme;
6. The Waste Management Flagship Programme;
7. Low Carbon Climate Resilient Built Environment, Communities and Human Settlement Flagship Programme.

Since Eskom, the state-owned power utility, is responsible for most of South Africa’s carbon dioxide omissions through coal burning, this is where the country’s main focus has been.

  • The Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) has initiated a process of research and consultation on South Africa’s future energy mix, which it aims to present to Cabinet before the end of 2022.
  • The South Africa Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) was announced at COP26 (November 2021). It is an international partnership to help South Africa move away from its dependence on coal.
Government role players

Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE)

Climate change received a lot of attention in the last of the Industrial Policy Action Plans (IPAPs) of the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (the dtic), understandably so since the recent drought was the worst in over a century. Download the documents at

Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) Directorate: Climate Change and Disaster Management Tel: 012 319 6775/ 6794  Agriculture, Food Systems and Food Security Flagship Programme is one of the seven Flagship Programmes (see earlier note).

Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs South African National Disaster Management Centre

Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE)

  • South Africa’s is a coal-based economy, and as such ranks amongst the highest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. It needs to explore clean energy initiatives, manage demand, and move towards a low-carbon economy. Read about the various projects and programmes on the website.
  • The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is one of the two project-based flexible mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol. Under the rules of the CDM, each host country must establish a Designated National Authority (DNA). The DNA for the CDM in South Africa is located in the DMRE. Find the “Designated National Authority” option on the website.
  • South African Carbon Offset Administration System (COAS)

National Treasury

  • Find the Carbon Tax Bill on the website.
  • Read the Parliamentary Monitoring Group’s account of National Treasury on cost of ‘Just Transition’ (18 August 2021) at

Department of Water & Sanitation



Role players

Read about the Smart Agriculture for Climate Resilience (SmartAgri) project at (find “SmartAgri” option). It is a collaboration between the Western Cape Department of Agriculture (DOA) and the Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs & Development Planning (DEA&DP), and the University of Cape Town’s African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI). It provides “a road map for actionable and prioritised initiatives that will take the agricultural sector road towards greater resilience in the face of climate challenges”. Promoting alternative crops is also one of the proposed actions of the SmartAgri plan. Read about this and the Alternative Crops Fund (ACF) on the website.

International business environment

The Glasgow Climate Pact is a new global agreement, reached at the COP26 summit in November 2021 that will set the global agenda on climate change for the next decade. See




Websites and publications

Visit websites mentioned earlier on this page.

  • Deloitte and NTT Data. 2022. Transforming Food Systems with Farmers. Available at
  • Alvar-Beltrán J., Elbaroudi I., Gialletti A., Heureux A., Neretin L., & Soldan R. 2021. Climate resilient practices: Typology and guiding material for climate risk screening. Rome: FAO. Available at
  • Find the “essential guide” Environmental Commodities: What Are They & How Can You Trade Them? (updated 2021, March) at
  • The State of Climate Action 2021 report identifies 40 indicators across key sectors that must transform to address the climate crisis and assesses how current trends will impact how much work remains to be done by 2030 and 2050 to deliver a zero-carbon world in time. Systems Change Lab. Find it at
  • Weintrobe S. 2021. Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis: Neoliberal Exceptionalism and the Culture of Uncare. London: Bloomsburg.
  • Read the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) provisional report The State of the Global Climate 2020 (2020, December) at
  • Find the McKinsey & Company special report, Agriculture and Climate Change, published in May 2020 on its website,
  • Available from is the SmartAgri Barometer, an publication containing climate-smart information for farmers.
  • Lynas M. 2020. Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency. London: HarperCollins.
  • Berners-Lee, M. 2019. There Is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Henson, R. 2019. The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change. 2nd edition. Boston: American Meteorological Society.
  • Wallace-Wells, D. 2019. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. New York: Tim Duggan Books.
  • – photographic documentation of climate change by Gary Braasch
  • Find documents like FAO-ADAPT Framework Programme on Climate Change Adaptation and The future of food and agriculture: trends and challenges, which includes climate change as a trend, at
  • Climate change reports appear regularly on the website of the WWF-SA website,
  • Schulze , RE (ed). 2016. Handbook  for  Farmers,  Officials  and  Other  Stakeholders  on  Adaptation  to  Climate Change in the Agriculture Sector within South Africa. Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Available under “Climate change” on the Directorate Climate Change & Disaster Management web pages at The handbook can be downloaded as Handbook part 1, Handbook part 2 and Handbook part 3.
  • Find the Eldis Climate Change Resource Guide and other material at
  • Find the Carbon Footprint Calculator under “Agri-Tools” at
  • The CSIR has implemented the South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas project on behalf of the Department of Science and Technology, with key inputs from South African research institutions and groups. Find it at
  • For those who are interested in finding out how much their favourite meal contributes to global warming, visit
  • Skeptical Science,
  • Climate Management: the Biggest Future Shock to the Global Food System, Ray A Goldberg, Djordjija Petkoski, Matthew Preble and Laura Winig, Harvard Business School N 9-9 1 1-4 0 3
  • Various publications are available from the African Climate & Development Initiative at Cape Town. Visit
  • Municipalities Addressing Climate Change: A Case Study of Norway. Kelman, I (editor) 2011, Nova Publishers, New York.
  • Winkler, H. 2009. Cleaner Energy Cooler Climate. Cape Town: HSRC Press.
  • Climate Change: A Guide for Corporates by Hennie Stoffberg & Paul Prinsloo, Unisa Press, Pretoria, 2009. Order the book at
  • Joubert, L. 2006. Scorched: South Africa’s Changing Climate and Boiling Point: People In A Changing Climate. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
  • Monbiot, George. 2006. Heat: How we can stop the Planet Burning. London: Penguin.


Some articles:

Agriculture and climate change


Climate change – general

Watch the movie Merchants of Doubt.

Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell. 2021. “Can YOU fix climate change?” Available at

Australians for Coal. What is your investment dollar doing? is an amusing three-minute video on Youtube.


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