Sustainable Food for Thought in Fountainhill Estate’s Second Online Biodiversity Seminar

At the second of four online seminars hosted by Fountainhill Estate (FHE), UKZN, the Institute of Natural Resources (INR) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), two researchers from UKZN contributed their expertise to the topic of food as part of the seminar series’ foray into the fundamentals of the Food-Water-Energy (WEF) nexus and biodiversity.

Joined by more than 170 participants, Research Associate Professor Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi, Co-Director of the Centre for Transformative Agricultural and Food Systems in the School of Agricultural Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Professor Tilahun Seyoum Workneh from Bioresources Engineering spoke about linking WEF and biodiversity for sustainable food production and livelihoods, and sustainable engineering technologies for food production, respectively.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science Professor Albert Modi hosted the seminar, which drew representatives of more than 10 countries and half of South Africa’s universities. He thanked FHE for facilitating the collaboration between itself, UKZN, the INR and SANBI for the successful series of seminars, and introduced the focus of the debate, namely whether or not the current food system is sustainable.

Mabhaudhi began by explaining the WEF nexus as a holistic, analytical, systems approach to the governance of WEF resources for improved human well-being and health, considering that the three are interlinked and issues of one can be transferred to another.

‘These systems are intricate and need to be carefully managed for sustainability, which is especially important in a country like ours where these finite resources are scarce and the population is increasing,’ he said.

An integrated WEF nexus approach to issues affecting South Africa’s food system, especially given its dichotomous, unequal formal and informal sectors, could be instrumental in formulating knowledge to effectively inform policy and translate science into implementation for achieving sustainable human outcomes.

Mabhaudhi emphasised the need to build resilience in vulnerable food systems, advocating for the strengthening of local food systems by sustainably maximising use of the treasure trove of agro-biodiversity, saying there were potentially thousands of crop species well-adapted to local environments that could withstand the threat of climate change, providing food and nutrition security. He also addressed the importance of expanding cultivation into urban areas, harnessing technological solutions, tapping into renewable energy, and mainstreaming traditional and indigenous underutilised crops.

With the majority of food producers in Africa being small-holder or small industrial enterprises making use of traditional techniques, Workneh highlighted that emerging food production technology needs to be extensively applied on the continent to deal with increasing demand and ensure sustainability through a complex network of activities.

This emerging, integrated agro-technology includes controlled environment technologies such as indoor farming, advanced “smart” greenhouses with efficient energy input, vertical farming, building-integrated agriculture, hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics and aquaculture. Workneh discussed the advantages of these technologies, and offered insight into future perspectives such as increased investment, increased opportunities for adoption, opportunities for collaboration, the establishment of specialised industry, and training and employment opportunities.

Modi concluded the proceedings by saying that the work presented by Workneh and Mabhaudhi was contributing to changing attitudes towards agriculture in South Africa, while the question and answer session yielded discussion on the cost of new technologies, the impact of climate change on water, and temperature extremes which make planning and management more challenging.

A subsequent seminar on 18 February focused on water, with the final seminar – a panel discussion on the topic of energy – scheduled for 4 March.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied