history of sustainable farming in south africa

The History of Sustainable Agriculture in South Africa

Over the past 50 years, South African agriculture has created a system that is both economically and ecologically unsustainable. As a result, we’re depleting our natural resources —our arable land, rivers and species—at an unprecedented rate. Fortunately, in recent years, sustainable farming solutions are taking shape, ensuring that future growth will happen in more efficient and responsible ways. To look forward, we need to look back, which is why we’re taking a closer look at the history of sustainable agriculture in South Africa. First, we need to look at: what is sustainable farming?

We’re proud to say that our founding company, Zylem, has quietly been a part of this inexorable move, participating in educating the market and developing products to satisfy its expanding requirements. Now, RegenZ aims to discover, evaluate and implement improved sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices and products.

What is sustainable farming?

To understand the history and background of sustainable agriculture, we first need to understand what it is. Sustainable farming is just that—farming methods implemented now that we can continue to use effectively in the future. One aspect of sustainable farming involves returning good health to the soil whilst simultaneously reducing input costs and reliance on inorganic fertilisers.

Sustainable farming solutions are not reliant on strict organic principles; they utilise a mix of organic and inorganic inputs to produce biological soil conditioners and foliar feeds that work hand in hand with other methods such as worm farming, effective composting and green manuring.

Learn all about sustainable farming in our comprehensive guide. 

Sustainable Farming Balance Graphic - RegenZ
Sustainable farming exists at the intersection of environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity.

Why sustainable farming?

Worldwide, the trend in agriculture is to revise the harmful practice of denuding the soil by plying it with more and more chemical substances. However, these substances do not enrich the soil, and it becomes more and more expensive each year to find a new chemical cocktail.

In South Africa, and worldwide, we need a more sustainable approach to avoid compromising the welfare of our nation. If agricultural industrialisation and intensification are mismanaged, this could result in increased environmental degradation and unemployment, and compromise food safety.

The benefits of sustainable farming

Sustainable agricultural practices work hard to enrich the soil with each successive season. The net result of effective sustainable farming practices is more nutrient-dense food, crops and livestock. It also means reduced or more predictable input costs as well as stabilised yields.

A brief history of sustainable farming

Interestingly, the modern organic movement and industrialised agriculture began simultaneously. As farmers used more chemicals and pesticides, so did the pioneers of the early organic movement start looking into new, non-chemical ways to make farming more sustainable.

Although organic farming is not the same as sustainable farming (sustainable farming can incorporate inorganic compounds), the philosophies are closely linked.

Who founded sustainable agriculture? 

The background of the sustainable agriculture movement grew haphazardly during the last half of the 20th century, so it’s difficult to pin down a single “founder”. However, the originator of the term “sustainable agriculture” was said to be Gordon Lee McClymont, an Australian agricultural scientist, ecologist, and educationist known for his multidisciplinary approach to farm ecology. The term gained popularity in the late 1980s.

How long has sustainable farming been around? 

Although the idea of sustainable agriculture has been around since the turn of the century, most social scientists would see the origin of sustainable agriculture arising in 1987 from “Our Common Future”, a report by the World Commission on Environment and Development. Also known as the Bruntland report, the report made a strong case for the need for global cooperation to address the increasingly damaged environment and to place Sustainable Development on the world’s political agenda.

Today, the growing popularity of sustainable agriculture can be connected to the wide-reaching fear that the planet’s carrying capacity and ability to feed humanity has been reached, or even exceeded. 

The history of sustainable agriculture in South Africa and the world

Here’s a brief timeline of the history of sustainable agriculture and organic farming:


  • In his book “Farmers of Forty Centuries”, American author Franklin H. King discussed the advantages of sustainable agriculture and warned that such practices would be vital to farming in the future.


  • Right up until the 1920s, farmers produced food naturally using traditional farming practices that conserved and regenerated the land.


  • Paul Miller developed DDT in 1939 and a new class of insecticides was born. 
  • Lady Eve Balfour launched an experiment on farmland in England that was the first, side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional farming.


  • The term “organic farming” is used for the first time by Lord Northbourne in his book, Look to the Land (1940), in which he described a holistic, ecologically balanced approach to farming.


  • Sustainable agriculture became a research topic of interest. In particular, J.I. Rodale began to popularise the methods of organic growing.
  • Department Head at the University of Missouri Dr William Albrecht began working closely with Brookside Laboratories in Ohio. The lab quickly adopted his soil testing methods, and Dr Albrecht served as an agronomist/trainer for Brookside until his death in 1974.


  • Rachel Carson published the revolutionary (for its time) “Silent Spring”, which chronicled the effects of DDT and other pesticides on the environment.


  • Many environmental and sustainable agriculture organisations were created in response to the global concern about the environment.


  • Influenced by the research in Silent Spring, the US government banned DDT.
  • The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) was founded.


  • Various farming and consumer groups around the world began seriously pressuring for government regulation of organic production to ensure standards of production.


  • The World Commission on Environment and Development issued a report titled “Our Common Future”, which proposed a strong case to place Sustainable Development on the world’s political agenda.


  • Demand for organic produce and sustainable farming practices continued to grow, particularly in the developed world.
  • Zylem founder, Justin Platt, attended a talk by Graeme Sait, founder of Nutri-Tech Solutions in Australia (NTS), and was inspired by the benefits of focusing on sustainable soil health. The goal of NTS is to improve nutrition from the soil up, a practice adopted by Zylem to support sustainable agriculture.


  • IFOAM offered the following definition for organic agriculture: “Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.”


  • Brookside Laboratories Inc. becomes a leader in establishing a comprehensive soil health test, currently recommended by Zylem and utilised by numerous clients.



  • The need for sustainability in agriculture becomes even more pressing due to extreme weather, war in Ukraine, and supply chain shortages. 

The future of sustainable farming in Africa

Africa has a lot of people to feed, and using strains of crops that require agrochemical fertiliser, irrigation and pesticides increases yields. However, these methods also damage the environment and are unaffordable to many small-scale farmers. For this reason (and many others), sustainable farming solutions are the only way to ensure food security in Africa in the future.

South Africa is a country with a history of change, and we’ve proven ourselves to be an adaptable group of people. Once again, we need to draw on this strength we have as a nation in the form of coming together to implement sustainable agriculture solutions.

At RegenZ, we are passionate about the work we do, and we’d love to advise on solutions for your farm’s long-term sustainability. Get in touch for more information.


Revisiting the Timeline of Organic Farming – Medium- https://medium.com/@InFPA/revisiting-the-timeline-of-organic-farming-e40e55898002

Sustaining African Agriculture Organic Production – UNCTAD – https://unctad.org/en/Docs/presspb20091rev1_en.pdf

A History of Sustainable Agriculture – https://eap.mcgill.ca/AASA_1.htm

AGRICULTURE: FACTS & TRENDS South Africa – http://awsassets.wwf.org.za/downloads/facts_brochure_mockup_04_b.pdf

Brookside Laboratories – https://www.blinc.com/history

Profile Picture of Alex Platt

About the Author: Alex Platt

Alex is Business Development Manager at RegenZ. He's inspired by the potential of regenerative farming and takes a special interest in the technology and products that are moving agriculture in a more sustainable direction.

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