Researchers discuss the effect of climate change on grain production

Prof Pieter Swanepoel, Department of Agronomy, Stellenbosch University
Published: 12 Junie 2023

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A panel discussion on climate change and its impacts on our past, current, and future research trends was held as part of the second National Grain Research Programme (NGRP) research day at Stellenbosch University on 3 April 2023. The NGRP was established as a vehicle to bring together stakeholders from government, industry, and the research community to promote industry-relevant and producer-focused research.

Experts on the panel were from various institutions and disciplines, including Derek Mathews (Maize Trust representative and Grain SA chairperson), Prof Stephanie Midgley (Research and Technology Development Services, Western Cape Department of Agriculture), Dr Lisa Rothman (Plant Pathology, University of the Free State), Dr Nicky Creux (Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute, University of Pretoria), and Cecile Bester (Department of Genetics, Stellenbosch University). The panel was facilitated by Prof Pieter Swanepoel from the Department of Agronomy at Stellenbosch University.

The panel discussion yielded insightful outcomes that aim to promote applied research and ensure the resilience of the agricultural sector in the face of global changes. The panellists highlighted the need for purposeful and practical information and technology that can help producers manage climate change risks through an awareness of the impacts on production practices.

Outcome 1: Dialogue and information on climate change impacts on agriculture are key
Entering a dialogue with producers is critical to sharing information gathered on the terminology, risks and impacts of climate change. Researchers play a critical role in generating relevant and practical information and technology. However, this should be shared with producers through appropriate platforms to increase engagement and trust and to work towards a solution together. The panel appealed to scientists to convey the message in a mindful and sensitive manner, not to spread an overly pessimistic outlook that instils fear and hopelessness in the agricultural sector, but rather to focus on coping with change and building resilience into agrifood industries.

Outcome 2: Resilience mindset
The panel agreed that the primary focus for the agricultural sector should be to develop resilience against climate change and variability. Climate resilience is the ability to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to hazardous events, trends, or disturbances related to climate. Improving climate resilience involves assessing how climate change will create new, or alter current climate-related risks, and taking steps to better cope with these risks. While the mitigation of chronic climate change effects is important, it is secondary to building resilience as a shorter-term strategy for managing risk and acute climate change events. Agriculture must be able to adapt to the changing climate by formulating and implementing information and technology to demonstrate resilience when producing grains. Researchers must generate technologies and information that producers can use to become more resilient against climate variability and climate change.

It is important to note the different timescales producers and climate scientists function at. Producers are, understandably, focused on the next season and the near future where resilience is critical. Climate scientists are working in the near to far future and have a responsibility to warn of oncoming challenges that can impact the sustainability of agriculture for future generations.

Outcome 3: Investment in research is critical
The panel emphasised that investment in research is critical to addressing the challenges posed by climate change on grain production. Linking local industry and local researchers with multinational funding calls and building purposeful partnerships among scientists are important. Strategic investment in public-private expenditure on research is necessary, especially considering the general decrease in public funds and the increase in private funds. Investing in research capacity is also critical to ensure ongoing research and to develop leadership on the frontiers of climate resilience engagements.

Outcome 4: Building resilient production systems
Through understanding production systems and developing resilient practices in dealing with climate variability and global change a greater appreciation and uptake of adaptive practices may follow. Conservation agriculture has been demonstrated to be beneficial in overcoming challenges posed by climate change and reducing risk when dealing with unpredictable climate variability and pest and disease management. Long-term trials are necessary to explore this further to ensure understanding mitigative practices under varying temporal and spatial scenarios. Using models to predict plant breeding objectives and forecast scenarios of potential new or shifts in pest and disease incursions is also important to ensure local breeding of crops and the availability of adapted varieties.

Outcome 5: Lack of access to weather data must be addressed
The lack of access to reliable and complete weather data must be addressed. Continued investment needs to be placed on the maintenance of infrastructure collecting and storing weather data, to ensure complete, accurate and precise data are captured. The panel suggested exploring citizen science, where producers who have private weather data can share this climate information to add to accessibility of weather data across multiple landscapes. This also speaks to a greater need to develop data hubs and platforms where data generated through research funded by government and local trusts can be accessible to all members of the community. It is important to be cognisant of where this data are housed and who has access, because this data may be the key to further tools and innovations that can improve agricultural resilience in the future.

In conclusion, the panel discussion highlighted the urgent need for innovative research, resilient agricultural practices, and a collaborative effort across the agricultural sector to address the challenges posed by climate change on grain production. The outcomes of the panel discussion can serve as a starting point for further action and collaboration among stakeholders.

For more information on the NGRP, contact Dr Miekie Human (miekie@grainsa.co.za) or Prof Cobus Visagie (cobus.visagie@fabi.up.ac.za).