Food Security

How food secure is South Africa really?

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The severe drought in large parts of the top food producing regions in the country is likely to put South Africa’s real food security position to the test over the next few months.

The first indication of things to come, with implications for issues like social stability, will come at the end of March. Grain South Africa’s National Crop Estimates Committee will announce their second summer crop estimate for the 2015/16 season in the last week of the month.

At this stage there is no reason to believe that the picture would have improved since the release of the first estimates on 26 February.

At the time the committee, in the face of what some farmers in the summer crop regions are describing as the worst drought in three decades, foresaw a maize crop 32% lower than last year. The drought also impacted negatively on the estimates for sunflower.

Maize’s impact on food security

To fully understand the impact of the production of maize on the food chain and food security in South Africa it is important to realise its critical importance to other food items.

It is a basic input for the production of red meat‚ chicken‚ eggs and milk. Every litre of milk, for example, requires a kilogram of maize, every one kilogram of red meat comes courtesy of an input of seven kilograms of maize.

It is against this background that, when releasing the first crop estimate of the year, Grain SA’s CEO, Jannie de Villiers, said that the expected 32% lower yield than 2013 will not only impact negatively on the agricultural sector. Basic food products were also forecast to become “very expensive” for consumers.

And this latter issue of the cost of food probably has the greater influence on the food security of the majority of South Africa’s population under prevailing socio-economic conditions.

In a recent article the South African Civil Society Information Service (SACIS) makes the point that “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access (our emphasis) to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle.”

The availability of food and the production of surpluses that can be exported do not tell the full story of what food security means for the man in the street.

The same article also quotes an Oxfam report which found that currently there are approximately 14 million people in South Africa who experience hunger and 1.5 million children under the age of six who are stunted by chronic malnutrition.

Soaring food prices towards the end of the year, feeding into already frayed general economic conditions, high levels of unemployment, a very restless labour scene and regular social unrest could place the South African national household under considerable strain.

Related issues

It is the first time since 1994 that the new government will have to deal with the effects of a major drought.

That this particular vulnerability of the South African agricultural sector has not been in the forefront of government’s mind is illustrated by the fact that there have been no incentives or other measures in place to keep some of last year’s bumper crop in the national pantry.

Last year SA had its largest crop in 33 years, when 14.3 million tons of maize were produced, while the country itself consumes about 10 million tons a year. The surplus has mostly been exported to ensure maximum return for farmers.

Hopefully Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Senzeni Zokwana’s recent statement at Grain SA’s recent annual congress that “government will ensure a team is established to investigate the implications of the drought …” will include some though about a ‘Joseph’s policy’.

This season’s drought illustrates how important it is for the country to keep some reserves from surplus years in the national pantry for the lean years.

Farmers are expected to harvest about 9.665 million tons this year and imports look inevitable. Grain SA estimates SA will have to import about 1.65 million tons of yellow maize this year.

White maize is not widely available internationally and yellow maize might again have to be mixed into millers’ products – something that was met with some consumer resistance in the past.

More importantly are the fears that the country’s rail infrastructure is no longer in a position to deal with the large-scale distribution of bulk maize arriving at harbour. This raises the spectre of the use of the more expensive distribution via roads with resultant further cost pressures for consumers at shop shelf level.

As a sign of things to come, on the futures market the most actively traded white maize contract for July delivery has shot up 30% to R2,595 a ton over the past month while yellow maize has gained 18% to R2,376 a ton.

The much lower production of South African maize also has serious implications for some of its neighbours. Countries like Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia and Malawi are traditionally supplied by South Africa and will probably have to source maize elsewhere.

Political impact

Food security, in the holistic sense of the word, is probably the factor with the greatest impact on the lived reality of the vast majority of any country’s population. It is therefore also a highly emotional subject.

To what extent the developing situation around the subject presently in South Africa has the potential to become politically and even ideologically tinted in the months ahead, is illustrated by the following paragraph from the SACSIS article referred to above:

“While the right to food discourse enjoys significant protection at the international, regional and national level, such protection has not been translated adequately into the enjoyment of the right to food in individual countries, including South Africa. Food production has undergone massive commodification, with a shift away from control by small-scale farmers towards international food conglomerates and powerful corporations, coupled with the rise of massive food retailers, genetically modified seed monopolies and fast food chains.”

 

by Piet Coetzer

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