“I got into climate change from day one in my first job,” recalls Dr Stephanie Midgley, Climate Change and Risk Assessment Scientist at the Western Cape Department of Agriculture.
Midgley originally completed her MScAgric in horticultural science, but she started her career at the National Botanical Institute at Kirstenbosch within the stress ecology research group. They had just started working on the effects of elevated carbon dioxide levels and increases in ultraviolet radiation on plants — this led to her doctoral research and sparked a lasting interest in climate change.
After completing her PhD, Midgley returned to horticultural science, focusing on solving climate-related problems such as sunburn and drought. She recently completed a Hortgro-funded project to model the impact of climate change on pome- and stone-fruit orchards in the key production regions.
Midgley is concerned that the response to climate change has been too slow. “There is enough information — we know what we need to be doing — but there’s not enough political and financial buy-in,” she says.
She believes drought is the biggest climate threat to Western Cape agriculture. “We are actually in a pretty good position in terms of being buffered by two oceans. We’re not getting these extreme weather events like cyclones, hurricanes, or extreme temperatures that are causing terrible disasters in other parts of the world.”
Although Midgley sees many options for mitigating climate risk, she stresses that time is running out. For example, surviving another major drought requires big infrastructure projects to start now.
“The next ten years are critical — if we do what we need to do now, then I think we’ll be okay.” However, she warns that climate change will disrupt food production and global markets in ways we can’t predict or control.
Fortunately, says Midgley, our agricultural sector is strong and has well-funded researchers and universities supporting them. “This is mainly thanks to the larger agri industries,” she clarifies. “It’s still well below international norms for countries with advanced intensive agriculture. Public research funding has all but disappeared.”
Nonetheless, Midgley is optimistic. “I think in the Western Cape, we have resilience and strength. We don’t know what the ceilings to adaptation are, but as far as we can, we will adapt.”