Saturday, March 01, 2008

South Africa: Agriculture - weathering the storm of power cuts

Millions of dollars worth of agricultural produce have been lost due to the electricity crisis in South Africa, which has seen rolling power cuts -- referred to locally as "load shedding" -- across the country over the past few months. Yet industry players who spoke to IPS about the crisis seemed positive about their ability to weather the storm.

"This is a time of great challenges, but it is also an opportunity for individuals and groups to come forward with revolutionary plans," said Carl Opperman, chief executive at Agri Western Cape, an organisation that represents a number of commercial agricultural producers in the Western Cape Province.

"There is an old Afrikaans expression ''n Boer maak 'n plan', which means that a farmer always makes a plan. The shock of the power cuts and load shedding is over. We are now in a phase where we are looking for solutions to the problem."

An example of forward thinking is found amongst dairy farmers who, through the national Milk Producers' Association (MPA), are looking for foreign investors to help them establish a biofuel plant that will use the gas produced by cattle manure.

When cattle manure decomposes it gives off methane gas, seen as one of the biggest contributors to global warming. But this emission can also be used as a biofuel. Plans to use methane gas instead of natural gas or fuel to power ethanol production plants are reportedly underway in a number of countries. The ethanol could serve as an alternative power source for a variety of agricultural machines.

Using methane gas in this way "is an extremely attractive proposition," Koos Coetzee, a member of the MPA, told IPS. "Not only will we be able to generate power, we will also be able to sell carbon credits, offsetting our costs."

Under the Clean Development Mechanism of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, industrialised countries can buy credits to offset their carbon emissions by investing in environmentally friendly projects in developing countries.

The envisaged methane gas project in South Africa will take a while to be established, though. "It will take months to erect a biofuel plant where we can convert manure, and it will certainly not address all of the power needs of the country," said Coetzee.

He estimates that the power shortages have cost dairy farmers some 13 million dollars in loss of income and lost produce. Whenever the power was cut, cows could not be milked and milk could not be refrigerated. Thousands of litres of milk were lost.

Dairy farmers have spent about 32.5 million dollars on buying emergency generators. And, certain farmers have been looking at solar panels and wind technology as alternative sources of energy, said Agri Western Cape's Opperman.

But, "These are extremely expensive options. The huge generators needed for agriculture cost a lot of money -- the equivalent of at least 130,000 dollars -- not to speak of the diesel needed to run them."

According to Lindie Botha, an economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber, South African farmers are ready and willing to invest in alternative fuel sources.

"We will not immediately see huge changes, but this crisis is the kick that was needed to really start investigations into alternative sources. We will see great changes within the next three to five years," she said.

"There will be investments in solar and wind energy, not only because it makes electricity users less dependent on electricity, but because it is cost effective. It is interesting that dairy producers -- who are more dependent on technology than, say, cattle farmers -- are those that for a long time have been more open to alternative power sources."

Botha echoes Opperman's sentiment that a farmer always makes a plan. "There will always be the lone individual who comes up with a brand new invention, like the person I read about on one of the industry websites...This farmer has invented some kind of contraption with which he taps the energy generated by the flow of the river on his farm."

Johan Willemse, a professor in agricultural economics, says that generators are not cost effective. Even the large 130,000 dollar generators can only provide enough power for one centre-pivot sprayer.

Nonetheless, generators of this size were sold out after the first wave of power cuts. It takes about four weeks for a new generator to arrive from abroad -- and in that time the irrigation farmer stands to lose thousands of dollars daily.

"Farmers have two alternatives. They either have to invest in generators, or they have to stop producing and find alternative sources of income," noted Willemse.

While the energy crisis has undoubtedly resulted in substantial losses, the exact extent of these losses is difficult to determine, he says. "We will only see the full effect in the next season."

However, Willemse does not see farmers losing their farms due to the power cuts. "A farmer does not simply stop working when he hits a snag. He carries on regardless."

Botha voices similar views. "If there is a farmer who has to leave his farm, the power crisis will not be solely to blame. It may be the final straw in a situation where other factors have already caused a shaky situation."

However, she warns that although the majority of farmers could weather the crisis in the short term, they may not be able to survive huge losses for three or four consecutive seasons.

"The crisis is definitely a threat to food security. When a farmer has to invest in expensive equipment he eventually passes on this loss, and eventually the consumer has to pay in the form of rising food prices."

By: By Stephanie Nieuwoudt: Farmers Can Plan - But Not Indefinitely

Reproduced with permission of and www.ipsnews.netCopyright © 2008 IPS-Inter Press Service.