Mainstreaming sustainable agriculture systems in South Africa has become imperative. Severe environmental degradation, low farm profitability and poverty associated with current conventional production systems have brought the agricultural sector to a cross-road. If we have to offer farmers in South Africa a better chance to survive on the farm and if sustainable and economically viable agriculture is to be achieved, then the paradigms of agriculture production and management must be changed. Since sustainable agriculture systems, such as Conservation Agriculture (CA), are social constructs (Coughenour and Chamla, 2000), this ‘change’ or innovation process can only and has in fact already been ‘happening’ on farms and by farmers for decades, which thereby and critically function as on-farm, farmer-centred Innovation Systems (IS’s), embracing not only the science suppliers but the totality and interaction of actors involved in innovation. Under this paradigm of ‘constructivism’, sustainable agriculture is not seen as a simple model or package to be imposed – it is more a process for learning or a self-perpetuating learning system (Smith, 2006; Putter et al., 2011). Unfortunately, to date the introduction of CA to farmers (commercial and smallholder systems) has largely excluded IS approaches and models; more notably the government programmes with larger impact potential.
This chapter describes the diverse and risky South African environment, the major agrarian production systems, land degradation, as well as the adoption of and some initiatives on CA mainstreaming. The latter will emphasise lessons learned from two recent case studies in South Africa. The first provides a review of a modelling approach for commercial grain production, while the second case study discusses how smallholder structures are better defined and transformed through CA IS’s, whereby not only soil health and crop productivity are improved, but also improved access to other components of the agricultural system, such as land, finance, inputs, technology, knowledge and markets of different kinds, are attained.