Initiatives promoting sustainable agriculture in South Africa

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by Deborah O’Connor and Samantha Schoeman of Emergent Africa

Agriculture is one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, and water usage in South Africa. Sustainable agriculture can therefore play a crucial role in ensuring food security and environmental conservation. With a rapidly growing population and ever-increasing pressures on natural resources, it is essential that farming practices are adopted that are environmentally friendly, economically viable, and socially responsible. As a result, empowering farmers with the necessary skills to contribute towards an environmentally sustainable future is vital to addressing the interlinked challenges of food security and climate change. In this article, we explore the importance of sustainable agriculture in South Africa and highlight some initiatives that promote food security and environmental conservation.

The importance of sustainable agriculture

Sustainable agriculture plays a vital role in addressing the challenges faced by South Africa in terms of food security and environmental conservation. Through the adoption of sustainable farming practices, farmers can ensure the long-term productivity of their land while, at the same time, minimising negative impacts on the environment. This approach also helps to conserve precious biodiversity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and protect increasingly scarce water resources.

The promotion of food security

South Africa faces many challenges, ranging from high unemployment and poverty to the ongoing energy crisis and the rising costs of living. These factors have a negative impact on South Africa’s state of food security by making food expensive and inaccessible to many and increasing the number of people and households experiencing food inadequacy and hunger. The World Food Programme (WFP) defines people as being food secure when “they have availability and adequate access at all times to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.”According to a Statistics South Africa report that assessed the country’s state of food inadequacy and hunger in 2021 across almost 17,9 million households, 15% (2,6 million) stated that they have inadequate access to food, whilst 6% (1,1 million) stated that they have severe inadequate access to food.

Millions of people are experiencing hunger and malnutrition, and even more worrying is that more than half a million (683 221) households with children aged five years or younger reported experiencing hunger in 2021. Children who do not have adequate nutritious food cannot develop as they should and are at a high risk of acute malnutrition. This, in turn, can lead to stunting, affecting not only their physical development but their cognitive development as well. This has a direct effect on their ability to concentrate and learn, placing them in an extremely vulnerable position and perpetuating the cycle of poverty and ill health.

With over 3,1 million (17,3%) households involved in agricultural activities in 2021, sustainable agriculture can play a vital role in addressing challenges faced by South Africans, contribute to food security by increasing agricultural productivity, improving access to nutritious food, and enhancing the resilience of farming systems to climate change. Additionally, sustainable agriculture can promote environmental conservation by adopting sustainable farming practices such as agroecology, organic farming, and conservation agriculture, farmers can produce more food while minimising the use of synthetic inputs and preserving soil fertility.

Environmental Conservation

South Africa is home to many diverse ecosystems, some of which include montane forest, mangroves, wetlands, savannah, and the succulent Karoo. In addition to ranking as the third most bio-diverse country in the world, South Africa is home to six floral kingdoms, as well as 20,000 plant species – an astonishing 10% of all plants found on Earth. The incredible diversity of plant species found in the Cape Floral Kingdom (or the Cape Floristic Region) is so unique to this small area that 70% of which are found nowhere else on the planet.

Many of these ecosystems and critical habitats face severe threats due to human development pressure on land. Actions such as ploughing of land for agriculture (arable, dairy farms) and conversion for viniculture and other industries especially in the Cape Floral Kingdome endanger the unique plants and the animals that rely on them. Additionally, these ecosystems are under threat from unsustainable agricultural practices such as overgrazing, deforestation, and excessive use of agrochemicals. Sustainable agriculture aims to protect and restore these ecosystems by promoting practices that conserve soil, water, and biodiversity. An example of this is agroforestry, which involves integrating trees into farming systems and can aid in restoring degraded land, improve soil fertility, and provide habitat for wildlife.

Initiatives Promoting Sustainable Agriculture

Several initiatives in South Africa are working towards promoting sustainable agriculture and ensuring food security whilst conserving the environment.

National Development Plan (NDP)

The National Development Plan (NDP), which sets out a vision for sustainable agriculture and rural development. The NDP emphasises the need to support small-scale farmers, promote climate-smart agriculture, and invest in research and innovation.

South African Organic Sector Organisation (SAOSO)

The South African Organic Sector Organisation (SAOSO) aims at promoting organic farming as a sustainable agricultural practice. SAOSO provides training, certification, and market access to organic farmers, thereby supporting the growth of the organic sector in South Africa. Organic farming not only reduces the use of synthetic inputs but also promotes soil health, biodiversity, and water conservation.

LandCare Program

The LandCare program is another notable initiative which focuses on sustainable land management and natural resource conservation. LandCare supports farmers in implementing sustainable farming practices, such as soil conservation, water harvesting, and agroforestry. This program also promotes community participation and knowledge sharing to ensure the long-term success of sustainable agriculture.


In addition, WWF engages with farmers across the country, helping them improve land-use planning, better production, and responsible farming practices. These include developing best practice guidelines and standards, and helping impact sectors understand what sustainable farming entails. WWF also facilitates agroecology training with smallholder farmers, scaled up and linked to Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) standards. Solidaridad’s farming solution mobile application is one of the tools that was developed and used to engage these farmers in sustainable farming practices, in return for securing market access of high-value horticulture chains. WWF also works with corporates such as Nedbank, Woolworths, and SAB to foster long-term relationships including facilitating ownership of some of the projects.

Sustainable agriculture is crucial for promoting food security and environmental conservation in South Africa. By adopting sustainable farming practices, farmers can increase agricultural productivity, improve access to nutritious food, and protect the environment. Initiatives such as the National Development Plan, LandCare, WWF and the South African Organic Sector Organisation are playing a significant role in promoting sustainable agriculture and ensuring a sustainable future for South Africa. It is essential for policymakers, farmers, and consumers to support and invest in sustainable agriculture to achieve food security and environmental sustainability in the country.


  • Focus on food inadequacy and hunger in South Africa in 2021 | Statistics South Africa (statssa.gov.za) (Accessed 3 October 2023)


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Deborah O’Connor | Sustainability Solutions Lead

Deborah is an internationally experienced strategic environmental and sustainability specialist with a background in environmental management, sustainability, ESG reporting, stakeholder engagement, climate change, energy and decarbonisation and development planning. Debo- rah has experience with Financing Institutions (World Bank Group) and associated environ- mental and social standards as well as other sustainability frameworks – including the Equator Principles, IFC Performance Standards, IFC EHS Guidelines, OECD Common Approach, Corpo- rate, Integrated and Sustainability Reporting (GRI). Deborah has in-depth knowledge of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and completed many online courses facilitated by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. She has undertaken projects across Africa and the Middle East. Projects undertaken in South Africa are undertaken in accordance with the national regulatory requirements – NEMA, NEM:WA, NEM:BA, NEM:AQA and the NWA etc.

Samantha Schoeman | Sustainability Solutions Specialist

Samantha is a sustainability and social development specialist with experience in a diverse range of industries, including infrastructure development, manufacturing, mining, and water and sanitation. She has spent over 15 years working in the fields of Sustainability and Develop- ment, Social Impact Assessment, Social Safeguards and Frameworks, Corporate Social Respon- sibility, Ethics and Compliance, and Project Management. Samantha has a BCom Degree from Bond University with a focus on Business Management, and a Certificate in Sustainability and Development from the University of Michigan. She is a GRI Certified Sustainability Professional, as well as a member of the International Society for Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), and the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA).

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