Our Burning Planet


Desperate farmers’ plea on Eskom blackouts: Let us feed South Africa

Desperate farmers’ plea on Eskom blackouts: Let us feed South Africa
The consequences of rolling blackouts for agricultural commodities are far-reaching, with potentially devastating outcomes. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

South Africa’s food security is at risk if Eskom continues with rolling blackouts — farmers will struggle to get through the summer without electricity.

Eskom’s power cuts are having a major impact on almost every aspect of agriculture, from fighting veld fires to irrigation, cold chain management and milking cows.

Eric Stoch of the North West Umbrella Fire Protection Association said “to fight fires we need to pump water using electricity. We also use electricity for milking cows, cooling milk, cooling and heating chicken houses and for our electric fences in game reserves.”

Farmer Barry Naudé said farmers are struggling with irrigation and this is affecting their produce. 

“The lucky ones are those who use solar,” he said.

Planting season

Agri SA economist Khulani Siwaya said electricity was especially significant in the agricultural sector, especially at this time of the year when it was the planting season for the summer crops.

“Given the fact that there will be planting, irrigation becomes the vital component in this activity during this time of the year. Irrigation relies heavily on electricity. When there is load shedding or power cuts, then farmers lose out on the irrigation window period and they find themselves having to irrigate in the peak hours or during times when they would not necessarily be irrigating,” he said.

Siwaya said when there were rolling blackouts, it took about an hour for irrigation to kick back in – this meant the farmer and labourers had to work extended hours to catch up on the day’s work.

“There are also facilities that need to be kept going with electricity, and when there are power outages, the fruit or the product from the farm becomes spoilt because it is not kept at the optimum temperature in the cold storage facilities.

“This has a dire impact on the kind of produce that reaches the shelves for the customers, but also for the exporting farmers who get penalised for the bad quality of the fruit they are sending out to our international markets.

“This is a big risk given the fact that we earn in foreign currency from those particular markets. This also diminishes our credibility when it comes to producing and exporting quality fruit,” said Siwaya.

Food security

Siwaya said the most worrying aspect was the threat to food security. “Because of load shedding, they will not be able to produce food that will feed the nation.”

Agri SA Executive Director Christo van der Rheede said the organisation had written to Eskom CEO André de Ruyter requesting an urgent engagement on the prospects for a stable electricity supply in the coming weeks. 

“With load shedding escalating as South Africa enters the summer crop planting season, the current energy crisis may have implications for food security into the coming year, unless farmers can put measures in place to mitigate against the effects of power cuts,” he said.

Van der Rheede said electricity was a key agricultural input.

“According to Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development statistics, the agricultural sector spent approximately R9-billion on electricity in 2021. This is more than 7% of the sector’s expenditure on intermediate goods and services. A reliable power supply is especially critical for the sector’s irrigation and water treatment,” he said.

The consequences of rolling blackouts for agricultural commodities were far-reaching, with potentially devastating outcomes, he said. Moreover, the impact extended beyond the blackouts.

Health hazards

“It usually takes up to an hour to resume irrigation systems when load shedding ends, costing farmers time and incurring additional labour costs. Blackouts also disrupt cooling and packing, with ramifications for food quality, and they pose a health hazard for humans and animals alike as they disrupt access to clean water for consumption, and stop wastewater treatment,” said Van der Rheede.

For export commodities, the consequences include disruptions to cold chain protocols mandated by foreign markets, and late shipments. These outcomes will diminish South Africa’s standing as a reliable source market.

“Ultimately, the greatest threat of load shedding is to the country’s food security. As crops fail for lack of irrigation, or farmers plant less for fear of losses, the country will experience the consequences of load shedding in the future, as the produce anticipated from this summer’s crop fails to materialise. 

Shortages and high prices

“The result will be food shortages and high prices,” he said.

Agri SA is aware of the recent announcement that Eskom will approach the market to procure an extra 1,000MW — but farmers need to know what the plan is beyond this initial attempt to stabilise the grid to plan for the season ahead.

“Given the magnitude of what’s at stake, Agri SA has approached Eskom for engagement in order to understand the current challenges and gain some insight into the outlook for the year, so the sector can make plans to mitigate the risks, thereby protecting both food consumers and producers.

“We trust that the power utility and government will work with us to avert a food certainty crisis in addition to the ongoing power crisis,” he said. DM/OBP

Absa OBP

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