The ability of farmers to ensure food safety, security and sustainability will be in danger as long as consumers fail to understand the needs, challenges and risks of agriculture. This was according to Wolseley-based fruit farmer and chairperson of Hortgro, Nicholas Dicey, who was speaking at the launch of the 69th annual Bien Donné Agri Cape Week that took place in Franschhoek recently.
The aim of the event, which boasts the theme ‘Agriculture for the Consumer’, is to bring a better understanding of agriculture and the work done by farmers and workers. Dicey, the keynote speaker, said the definition of the ‘consumer’ should be broadened to not only include people who buy food, but also the media and government.
“Agriculture needs a media that also tells the good news within the industry, a government and agriculture department that actually recognises the importance of agriculture and ultimately makes it easier to provide produce of world-class standard,” he said. Dicey said the consumer also needed to embrace agriculture for “the value adding it does to the South African economy as a whole, and to the economies of many rural areas that agriculture supports almost exclusively”.
He said while primary agriculture’s contribution to South Africa’s GDP was only about 2%, the pre- and post-production activities, services and duties pushed its contribution to between 15% and 18%. But Dicey said instead of receiving the support it needed, agriculture was being portrayed by the media and certain sectors of the government as an industry that wilfully transgressed labour laws.
“It is seen as an industry which still operates in the dark ages and at times, labelled to be the root cause of all that is bad and wrong in our rural society.” He said consumers must understand that farms are operated on sound business practices.
“Farms are run professionally, and not only from a technical and financial aspect but also in the way the labour sector is managed. As a business, it cannot afford to risk its future by wilfully transgressing laws and ethical, environmental, food safety and other requirements it needs to prove via transparent third party accreditations.”
Furthermore, Dicey said the consumer needed to understand the predicament that agriculture finds itself in due to increasing input costs, resulting in extremely low net farm incomes.“The future of the small-scale production unit, and in particular the beginner farmer, is in danger and under intense pressure to make ends meet. South Africa’s agriculture is going to evolve quicker than in the past, into large-scale production units that can absorb the increasing costs by improved economies of scale.”
In terms of the agricultural sector’s ability to ensure sustainable food security, Dicey said investor confidence in agriculture needed to be enhanced. “Unfortunately, investor confidence in the sector is presently at a low point and there are alarmingly too many signs of disinvestment in agriculture for it to achieve its objective of providing food security.”
He said alongside investor confidence, agriculture also needed an enabling environment, but added that the government was failing in this regard. “In the fruit industry, our experience is that the current capacity, or lack thereof, within the department of agriculture and the unco-ordinated actions within the trade and industry department are not enough to open new markets or retain some of the ones we already have access to.
“The expertise has moved away from government departments and we need to find complementary ways to manage the potential disaster of losing markets,” he said. Dicey said his plea to the consumer, including the media and government, was to stop using agriculture as a political football.
“The worn out rhetoric that farmers resort to apartheid-style practices and act as slave drivers is totally incorrect, unproductive and unfair. Agriculture is run as a professional business from both a production and social point.” The Agri Cape Week will take place from 17 April to 20 April at the historical ARC Bien Donné Research Farm, on the R45, Simondium/Paarl.
For more information visit www.bdacw.gov.za or call 021 863 0397.