Karla Hoogendijk (SIZA Environmnetal Specialist)

The United Nations Brundtland Commission (1987) defined the term sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. In simple terms, this means that the present and the future benefit equally as much from current practices and neither one draws a shorter end. Resilience means that an individual, a community, a business, an economy or an ecosystem has the capacity to withstand the impacts of negative events and to continue developing. Although the two concepts, sustainability and resilience, are often used interchangeably, they are not similar in their definitions and meanings. Instead, they are complementary to each other. Over the long term, sustainable management practices aid resilience and vice versa. For example, calculating a farm’s water-use efficiency (the amount of water used per unit of crop grown) is globally recognised as a management practice that can aid the environmental sustainability of a farm. However, these calculations can play an important practical role in decision-making processes during droughts, where some blocks might have to be prioritised for irrigation with limited amounts of water and others might have to be pulled out. On the other hand, a crisis situation such as nationwide load-shedding might necessitate the installation of solar panels to ensure production activities can continue. In turn, the business’ reliance on non-renewable energy sources are reduced and its environmental sustainability is improved.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that proactivity is better than reactivity. Waiting for stress and risk indicators, instead of pre-emptively implementing practices to build resilience means that you are always on the back foot, on the defence, and in crisis managing mode. Although crisis management will always be a part of crisis situations such as global pandemics, businesses that have been operating on the very margins of sustainability, show much less resilience during these trying times compared to those that have adopted sustainable management practices prior to the crisis.

This does not mean “too little, too late”. Making the decision to farm and conduct business more sustainably, at any point in time, will benefit the business in the present and in future. But sooner is always better than later. Furthermore, there is no “perfect recipe” or one solution for all. The management practices required to achieve sustainability and consequential resilience in a business is shaped by the business’ own unique challenges and should be tailored to each specific circumstance. It is therefore important to assess and analyse the business’ own risks when making this decision and deciding on the practices to implement going forward. The identification of areas where improvement can be implemented remains imperative to the process and can be achieved systematically. Although risks between businesses can vary and different management practices might be required to achieve sustainability and build resilience, adapting and learning from others’ successes and mistakes could be the key to achieving it yourself. Many businesses share the same challenges and working as a collective to achieve similar goals might aid the resilience of the system as a whole.

Needless to say, sustainability and resilience are not achieved overnight and requires a constant and continuous effort to adapt and improve. Change is not a stagnant process, nor should it be solitary. As an industry, a country and a global community, we should all be focussing on improving our own, individual sustainability in order to build the resilience of the system as a whole against any future setbacks.