Farming Sustainably in South Africa | Sustainable Farming Guide

Farming sustainably is not just a trendy buzzword; it’s the only way for us to feed a growing population within the limitations of our natural resources. In this guide, we’ll summarise everything you need to know about sustainable agricultural practices and sustainable farming in South Africa.

Sustainable Farming Guide - RegenZ

What's in our sustainable farming guide?

Introduction: Farming sustainability in South Africa

Modern, industrialised agricultural methods play a significant role in the degradation and destruction of natural resources such as soil, water, forests, microorganisms, and the wider environment. And while these production methods may be relatively effective at catering to the present generation’s needs, they pose a threat to future farming activities: in a word, “unsustainable”.

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Potential costs of modern farming techniques

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Topsoil depletion

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Groundwater contamination

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Degradation of rural communities

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Increased production costs

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Poor conditions for farmworkers

There are several reasons that the agricultural industry in South Africa—and around the world—are looking for innovative, long-term solutions for sustainable growth in the future. These include environmental changes, supply chain disruptions and economic impacts. 

In particular, the importance of secure food supply chains was highlighted at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. During the pandemic, the global lockdowns placed unprecedented stress on food supply chains due to human resource and farm labour constraints, bottlenecks in processing and logistics, along with grocery stockpiling. Challenges to the food supply chain in South Africa also include droughts, water scarcity and an unreliable electricity grid.

Despite these challenges, the agricultural sector is still expected to provide more food. Policymakers and producers seeking to eradicate hunger face the dilemma of preventing billions from going hungry while saving the planet simultaneously. According to the UN’s 2020 food and agriculture report, 8.9% of the global population (nearly 690 million people) are hungry. This is an increase of 60 million in five years. And by 2050, food production will need to increase by 70% to feed an estimated population of 9 billion people.

Adaption, reorganising and adopting sustainable agricultural practices (SAPs) are the only ways forward to ensure food security. As a result, there have been widespread calls for farmers to use sustainable agricultural practices as an alternative to traditional farming practices. 

Sustainable agriculture definition

Sustainable agriculture is the production of plant and animal products (including food) using farming methods that protect public health, the environment, communities, and animal welfare. By farming sustainably, producers are able to meet society’s present needs without compromising the ability of current or future generations to meet their own needs.

The key to sustainable agriculture is finding the balance between the need for food production and the preservation of environmental ecosystems. Sustainable farming occurs at the intersection of three priorities:

  • Environmental health – enhances environmental quality, promotes healthy biodiversity and the sensible management of natural resources
  • Economic profitability – economically viable
  • Social and economic equity – enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole
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What is the difference between regenerative agriculture and sustainable agriculture?

Although regenerative systems and sustainable practices share some methods and philosophies, they are not exactly the same.

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The  difference between regenerative agriculture and sustainable agriculture is understandably confusing since both regenerative and sustainable agricultural practices essentially incorporate the same practices. In fact, farmers can practice regenerative agriculture as part of overall farming sustainability. And many producers incorporate “sustainable” methods into a regenerative farm. 

Regenerative agriculture is a clearly defined system that draws from decades of scientific and applied research. Sustainable agriculture, on the other hand, is more broadly defined and loosely set. While regenerative agriculture intends to increase productivity and growth potential, sustainable practices seek to maintain systems without degrading them. 

The Key Difference Between Regenerative And Sustainable Farming

What are the goals of sustainable agriculture?

Sustainable agriculture focuses on producing long-term crops and livestock while having minimal effects on the environment. Other overall goals associated with sustainable agriculture include:

  • Conserving water
  • Reducing the use of fertilisers and pesticides
  • Promoting biodiversity in crops and the ecosystem
  • Maintaining economic stability of farms
  • Helping farmers improve their techniques and quality of life.
Climate change in farming- RegenZ

The European Union (EU) is seeking to compel other countries, including South Africa, to adhere to new regulations to combat climate change. Failure to do so could result in losing access to its lucrative market. 

Launched in 2020, the “Farm to Fork strategy” is a new approach that aims to reduce the environmental and carbon footprint in the way food is produced and consumed, ensuring that the entire food system effectively contributes to achieving the EU’s carbon reduction targets.

One of the Farm to Fork strategy’s broad pillars is food production. The policy sets out the fundamentals for sustainable production by setting targets relating to a number of sustainable farming practices. It also raises question marks as to whether South African farmers are ready to adapt and start farming more sustainably.

Why we need sustainable agricultural practices in South Africa

Sustainable agriculture for food security

As discussed in the introduction, farming sustainably is now a key priority in the South African and global context. Our food systems are under threat, affecting the most vulnerable populations. In 2020 alone, up to 46 million more people in Africa suffered from undernourishment compared with 2019.

And according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), South Africa will have to produce 50% more food by 2050. This additional production will need to feed an estimated population of 73 million people. More land will need to be worked, more synthetic fertiliser will be added, and more food will need to be processed and transported. 

South Africa is already a carbon-intensive economy, mainly due to the country’s reliance on coal for power generation. South Africa is the world’s 12th biggest emitter of greenhouse gases; and the country’s food systems account for up to a third of the total greenhouse gas emissions. With higher production required to meet future food demands, it’s vital for producers to reduce their carbon footprints by farming sustainably. 

Sustainable farming provides a potential solution to equip agricultural systems to feed a growing population within the changing environmental conditions. Farming sustainability is therefore crucial to ensure food security.


Pushed by policy

How does sustainable farming work?

The concept of sustainability integrates the interconnected economic, social, and environmental dimensions of agriculture. Policies and practices related to sustainable farming need to satisfy and support the needs of all these elements. 

Sustainable agriculture incorporates strategies for preserving natural resources and changing agricultural production practices to become more environmentally friendly and profitable. In addition, it requires a concerted commitment to changing social values, economic institutions, and public policies. That’s why strategies for sustainable change must take into account the complex and dynamic relationship between agricultural production and broader society.

To create a more sustainable food production system, we need a wide range of sustainable farming methods, strategies and approaches, ranging from concentrated efforts to alter specific practices or policies, to the longer-term tasks of reforming key institutions, challenging widely-held social values, and rethinking economic priorities. 

How Does Sustainable Farming Work

The benefits of farming sustainably

Sustainable agricultural practices have numerous benefits to human health and wellbeing as well as the natural environment. Some of these benefits of sustainable farming include:

The environment and natural resources play a massive role in fulfilling our basic needs. We need to look after it to meet the needs of both current and future generations. Sustainable agriculture does just that by helping to replenish the land along with other natural resources such as water and air.

By adopting sustainable farming practices, farmers will:

  • Reduce reliance on nonrenewable energy
  • Reduce chemical use
  • Save scarce resources
  • … all of which helps sustain natural resources for future generations

Sustainable agriculture produces a wide variety of plants and animals, resulting in increased biodiversity. One of the ways this is done is through crop rotation, where plants are seasonally rotated; thus introducing biodiversity, enriching the soil and preventing diseases and pest outbreaks.

Modern industrial agriculture is heavily dependent on nonrenewable energy sources, especially such as coal and petroleum. Sustainable agricultural systems have the goal of reducing the need for fossil fuels by reducing consumption and switching to renewable energy sources.

Sustainable agriculture avoids the application of hazardous pesticides and fertilisers. This means that sustainable farmers are able to produce food that is not only safer for the consumer, but also for farmworkers and the surrounding communities. In addition, the crops farmed sustainably can also be more nutritious since the crops themselves are healthier.

In a sustainable agriculture system, any waste produced by the farm remains inside the farm’s ecosystem so that it cannot cause pollution.


When it comes to air pollution, traditional agricultural activities affect air quality by dust from tillage and harvesting, smoke from agricultural burning, pesticide drift from spraying, and emissions from nitrogen fertilisers. Sustainable agriculture improves air quality by incorporating crop residue into the soil, minimising tillage, and planting windbreaks and cover crops.

Modern industrial agriculture poses a serious threat to soil erosion. Sustainable farming methods such as minimising tillage, reducing runoff and keeping the soil covered with cover crops and mulch help to keep the soil in place.

The Economic Benefits of Sustainable Farming

Sustainable agriculture seeks to minimise the long term impact of human activities on the environment, enabling future generations to prosper on our planet. Of course, this is a noble reason to implement sustainable farming practices, but what many farmers don’t realise is that transitioning to sustainable agriculture practices also benefits the bottom line. In this article, we discuss some of the economic benefits of farming more sustainably.

By nature, sustainable farming helps farmers produce more for less, thus lessening the overall cost of farming. Less money is spent on chemical inputs, plants are more resistant to disease and pests and yields higher. All of these factors help the farm to become a more sustainable, profitable and future-fit operation. 

The ability to meet long-term demands 

The world’s population continues to rise, along with the demand for increased food supply. Farmers who can continue to keep their land and crops flourishing – i.e. sustainable – play an important (and profitable) role in meeting this demand. 

Soil quality is the key to sustainability 

Traditional, industrialised agriculture is intensive in nature and relies largely on ‘sticking plasters’ to promote profitable yields. What we mean by this is that traditional farming treats the symptoms of poor yields, rather than the causes. For example, a poor quality soil lacking in nutrients is plied with chemical fertilisers, and chemical pesticides are used to prevent insects from attacking plants that have little healthy resilience of their own. 

The chemical fertilisers used extensively in traditional agriculture contain salts and compounds that cannot be absorbed by the plants and can, therefore, build up in the soil. This causes long-term ecological imbalances, which are traditionally addressed through – you guessed it – more chemicals. These chemical compounds also leach from the soil and contaminate groundwater and streams.

Rather than depleting the quality of the soil over time (and relying on manual inputs to address these deficiencies), sustainable agricultural practices work hard to enrich the soil with each successive season, increasing the farm’s chances of long-term yield and productivity. 

Fewer inputs = money saved 

Sustainable farming solutions utilise a mix of organic and inorganic inputs to produce biological soil conditioners and foliar feeds that work hand-in-hand with tried and trusted methods such as effective composting, worm farming and green manuring.

By following sustainable practices such as these, farmers can reduce their reliance on chemical inputs – all of which cost money. This reduction in overheads leads to increased profitability. 

More efficient systems lead to less wastage 

Sustainable agriculture practices provide ample opportunities to optimise the production of food and minimise wasted resources, time and money. One example is farming ‘smarter’ by using technological and scientific advances to develop interconnected systems for soil, seed drills, spreaders, crop irrigation, creating more efficient farm-to-fork methods and processes. 

Using integrated technology and sustainable methods to promote soil health and protect scarce resources will help ensure long-term profitability for farmers. 

Sustainable livestock management

By selecting and adopting appropriate  and optimal animal species, nutrition, grazing management, reproduction and herd health strategies, sustainable agriculture includes sustainable livestock production. This leads to the overall effective development of livestock for the long term and results in better care of animals by catering to their natural behaviours. .

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Social equality

Workers that are part of a sustainable farming system are offered competitive salaries and benefits; they work in humane and fair working conditions with a safe work environment and adequate living conditions.

Beneficial for the environment

Agriculture was one of the major factors that contributed to the growth of the modern world. Cultivating food instead of having to hunt for and gather things to eat meant that humans were able to use their energy for the more diverse tasks that built modern society as we know it. But at what cost to the natural environment?

Large-scale, industrialised and intensive farming can have a negative environmental impact. But using sustainable farming methods can actually prevent and mitigate the current environmental problems we are facing. Sustainable farming reduces the need for the use of non-renewable energy resources. It uses 30% less energy per unit of crop yield in comparison to industrialised agriculture. Not only does this help conserve natural resources, it also means the release of fewer chemicals and less pollution into the environment. 

Other environmental benefits include:

  • Maintaining soil quality
  • Reducing soil erosion
  • Saving water
  • Increasing biodiversity
  • Eliminating toxicity 

Boosting soil fertility

Improving soil health is one of the key focus areas of sustainable farming practices, which uses methods such as no-tilling, cover cropping, crop rotation and the application of compost and other mineral and nutrient-balancing applications. 
By improving the health of the soil, these practices increase the natural biodiversity of soil fauna and flora, and support the growth of more resilient crops.
One teaspoon of healthy soil can contain up to 1 billion helpful bacteria. The concentration of helpful bacteria in intensively-farmed soils might drop to as little as one hundred.

Sequestering carbon

Growing crops adds oxygen to the atmosphere. During the process of photosynthesis, plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When soils are managed with minimum disturbance (i.e. have reached a healthy and sustainable state), soils also have a natural carbon carrying capacity. 
You may be surprised to learn that carbon can even be reduced by a livestock farm. If the farm uses a rotational grazing system, this increases the biodiversity of native plants. Richer, more diverse pastures mean more organic material entering soils = healthier soils = a better capacity for the soil to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Isn’t it amazing how sustainable agriculture practices work together?

Preventing soil erosion 

Soil loss is one of the biggest threats to environmental wellbeing, and its main contributors include intensive agriculture with monoculture fields. With sustainable farming methods, however, farmers have the ability to prevent and reverse this damage. With low soil disturbance and no-tillage practices along with earthworks that stabilise steep slopes, vegetation and crops, this can help to hold the soil together and prevent erosion.

Maintaining the water cycle 

In sustainable agricultural systems, plants and trees help to retain and add water to underground aquifers. This process is further improved if that farmer combines plants of different sizes and evenly covers the soil to prevent soil loss, thereby improving soil structure and enabling rainwater infiltration.

Conserving water

Sustainable farming methods such as dry farming, no-till and planting of cover crops significantly reduce the need to irrigate. A higher water content in the soil means less irrigation needed to preserve crops during dry spells, which saves significant amounts of water in the long term.

Creating habitats and preserving ecosystems 

Sustainable farming systems work in harmony with nature, thus creating diverse natural habitats that are home to indigenous flora and fauna. Keeping land for agricultural use also prevents the land from being developed and urbanised, maintaining a habitat for native species.
Sustainable Farming - RegenZ

What are the pros and cons of sustainable farming?

As we’ve discussed, the pros of sustainable farming include both human health and environmental benefits. This is not to say, however, that adopting sustainable agriculture is without its challenges. 

Possible cons of sustainable farming in South Africa include:

  • Regulatory and policy uncertainty: Policy cycles and political processes take time, likely leading to some regulatory uncertainty during transition phases.
  • High costs of compliance: Conforming to stringent regulatory standards and certifications can be costly.
  • Environmental degradation: Although sustainable practices support the natural environment, it can be difficult to start farming sustainably with severely degraded farming.
  • Education: Adopting sustainable farming methods means learning something new, and there will always be those less eager to try things differently. 

Sustainable farming methods

What is the most sustainable way to farm?

There are many farming strategies that can help make agriculture more sustainable. Here are some of the most common techniques for greater farming sustainability.

Crop rotation

Crop rotation is one of the most powerful methods of sustainable agriculture. It helps to prevent the negative consequences to soil health, biodiversity and pest management that come with monoculture and planting the same crops in the same soil for years. Crop rotation breaks the reproduction cycles of pests, replenishes nutrients, and reduces the need for chemical fertilisers.

Cover crops

Planting cover crops helps farmers to achieve their goals of preventing soil erosion, suppressing weeds, enhancing soil quality of the soil, and reducing the need for fertilisers and other chemicals.


Permaculture is a food production system that uses intentional design and smart farming techniques to use resources more efficiently and improve production potential. A permaculture system intends to mimic how plants in a natural ecosystem would function.

Permaculture techniques include:

  • Growing without tillage
  • Herb and plant spirals
  • Keyhole gardens
  • Mandala gardens
  • Sheet mulching
  • Creating swales to hold water 
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Improving soil health

Soil health is the central component of a healthy agricultural ecosystem. Good soil is full of life, helping to increase yields and grow healthier crops. There are a number of ways to improves soil health, including some of the sustainable farming methods we have already mentioned: 

  • Reducing or eliminating tillage
  • Leaving crop residue in the field after a harvest
  • Using composted plant material or animal manure
  • Cover cropping 

Improving soil health through soil restoration is a key focal area of regenerative agriculture

Natural pest predators and bio-control

A farm is an ecosystem, not a factory. In a sustainable agriculture environment, maintaining effective control over pests includes natural pest control, such as birds, insects and other animals that are natural predators of agricultural pests.

Integrated pest management (IPM) is another approach that emphasises the importance of crop rotation and relies on biological pest control methods instead of chemical pest control.

Biological Pest Control: For Nature, By Nature

Polyculture farming

Similar to crop rotation, polyculture aims to mimic natural principles to achieve the best crop health and yields. As the name suggests, polyculture involves growing multiple complementary crop species in one area. This produces a greater diversity of products and helps farmers to fully utilise their available resources. 


In dry regions with soils susceptible to drought and desertification, agroforestry has become a powerful tool to stabilise soils, minimise water and nutrient runoff and protect crops from wind or heavy rain. Agroforestry involves the growth of trees and shrubs amongst crops or grazing land. By combining both agriculture and forestry practices, farmers can benefit from long-term productive and diverse land use. Trees added to the farming system also provide an additional source of income and the potential for product diversification.

Better water management

The first step in water management is the selection of the right crops for the specific sustainable farming system. Where possible, it’s beneficial to select local crops that are more adaptable to the weather conditions of the region. In dry regions, for example, it’s more sustainable to choose crops that do not demand too much water. Smart irrigation (discussed below) is another way of optmising water consumption and reducing wastage. 

The role of technology in sustainable farming

These days, more and more farmers are using technology to help make their operations more efficient, profitable, environmentally-friendly and sustainable. Some of the most common smart farming technologies include moisture sensors, smart irrigation, and terrain contour mapping. 

Through smart monitoring and data analysis, farmers can gain a better understanding of how their crops are producing and how they can plan for and optimise farm conditions to maximise the health and yield of their produce.

Examples of smart farming technology

The use of drones in agriculture continues to grow and evolve. Since drones can carry a wide array of sensors and cameras, this powerful technology can be in various aspects of sustainable agricultural production. For example, cameras on drones can continually monitor crop growing conditions; sensors can collect data that helps create a better watering schedule. This data collected from drones can help guide farmers’ decisions around irrigation, planting, fertilisation, and harvesting.

By adopting sustainable farming practices, farmers will:

  • Reduce reliance on nonrenewable energy
  • Reduce chemical use
  • Save scarce resources
  • … all of which helps sustain natural resources for future generations

Digital sensors have a vast range of applications in smart farming. These sensors can be used to catch almost any data that would be helpful to a farmer, such as watching cattle movement, collecting climate data, and measuring precise pH levels and other measures in the soil.

Irrigation is a vital part of food production, but the issue of water waste is an issue. Smart, precision irrigation automates water supply according to the time of day, climate conditions and other variables in order to irrigate more efficiently.

Advanced telemetry systems and GPS are revolutionising agricultural fleet management. These smart systems track the equipment being used and generate important data on each piece. The information accessible to farmers can include fuel consumption, engine speed and maintenance alerts. Ultimately, the goal of smart fleet management is to use equipment more efficiently.

Automation can help to manage the dynamics between food production and environmental protection, making for more sustainable solutions. For example, small robots  can identify and remove weeds, reducing a farm’s reliance on expensive chemical herbicides.

How to Start Farming Sustainably and Transition to Sustainable Farming Techniques

Conclusion: working towards a sustainable future

We know that the persistence of industrial methods of agriculture is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of people, animals, and the environment. Sustainable methods of production, on the other hand, provide a necessary alternative that is more responsible economically, environmentally, and ethically, and is better for animals, people, and the planet. 

Agriculture and sustainability can co-exist. The truth is that we need them to, as moving towards a more sustainable agriculture industry will be key to our future food security. 

At RegenZ, we focus on sustainable farming solutions for South Africa. We aim to be a global leader in the transformation of human health and nutrition by driving the widespread adoption of innovative agricultural practices and discovering, applying and commercialising sustainable and regenerative innovations in crop production technology.

Want to learn more about farming sustainably? Get in touch with the RegenZ team.