The role of farmers during the COVID-19 crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic had brought new appreciation for the pivotal role that South Africa’s agriculture sector plays in the provision of healthy, sufficient and affordable food, according to Derek Mathews, chairperson of Grain SA.

The role of farmers during the COVID-19 crisis
South African farmers’ dependence on multinational input suppliers has resulted in a situation where input costs are out of sync with local output and profit margins, according to Derek Mathews, chairperson of Grain SA.
Photo: Annelie Coleman
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Do you believe that the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has given rise to an increased public appreciation of the role that agriculture and those who work in the sector play in the provision of sufficient and affordable food and fibre in South Africa?

I think that many people have never had reason to think about where their food comes from, and this pandemic has helped them to consider and perhaps have a new appreciation for what we as farmers do every day.

We’ve seen a new wave of [social media posts] thanking farmers, and it’s appreciated.

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However, much of the response originates in our agricultural media. It would have been nice had it come from public opinion, as it has for medical and security services. That would indicate a true shift in appreciation for the agriculture sector.

We’re experiencing a much better relationship with government at this point and hope that we can build on this new approach.

The sector has been pivotal in informing government on the supply situation of food at this time, and this played into decisions that government had to make about measures to manage the impact of the pandemic.

Food is the most basic need of people after water, followed by shelter.

Do you anticipate that COVID-19 will cause those policy and decision-makers, including politicians, who were prone to negative statements and opinions about commercial agriculture, to reassess their opinions?
It would be easy to say that South Africa could import all the food it needs. But is that really the case? All countries are affected by this pandemic and all are taking care of their own needs first before exports are even considered. A hungry nation is not a governable nation.

Without a well-established agricultural value chain, the state would not have had the luxury of closing down the country in a lockdown.

In this sense, I think the pandemic has forced politicians to realise and admit the importance of agriculture to South Africa’s economy and social stability. Whether it will change their narrative about commercial agriculture remains to be seen.

One wonders how long a politician’s memory will last after the dust settles and focus shifts to the next issue.

As a sector, we’ll continue to contribute positively to the well-being of our people by doing what we do best. Our main objective is to provide food. We always have and always will. That’s what most policymakers and politicians take for granted. We can only hope for a more positive attitude after the pandemic.

How does grain production in particular contribute to food security and food sovereignty in South Africa?
Grain production forms the basis of sustenance in our country, as it does in most other countries. However, our grain industry is extremely vulnerable due to a profitability crisis.

Profit margins have shrunk to unsustainable levels, and recovery after extended drought or disaster is all but impossible. Farmers to date have been applying their meagre reserves to weather the storm, but this is fast coming to an end.

Farmers, through Grain SA and the input supply chain, need to formulate the way forward as a matter of urgency. The current situation cannot continue; it’s not sustainable for farmers and input suppliers.

We’ve all been very accepting of globalisation, but the growing dependence on multinational input supplies is worrying.

The effect of this has been that input costs have become removed from South African farmers’ output and profitability. Add to this the reality of policy uncertainty and a faltering economy, and we have a perfect storm that can change our privileged position of being food-secure to a very different situation very quickly.

I think the pandemic has given us an excellent opportunity to look ahead and build a future for the grain industry in South Africa, going beyond the immediate need to keep the country fed and getting the economy going again.

The time has come for all role players in agriculture to re-evaluate their relevance. One thing is for sure: we cannot operate alone or at the expense of one another. The success of
our future depends on how we build the future of our industry together.

Should we be able to map out a future to the benefit of every link in the value chain, then we’ll prosper once again and the country will prosper too.

If we can’t get this right, the future is bleak indeed. We have to learn from neighbouring countries; the moment the grain industries were reduced to such an extent that the supply of food was crippled, their entire economies collapsed. This proves that it simply is not viable to depend on food imports.

What’s the point of spending millions upon millions of rand developing new farmers into an industry that can’t sustain those very same farmers and their families?

Grain SA has been at the forefront of farmer development for many years and has successfully contributed to developing farmers with skills and knowledge. The reality of low profitability has seen these very farmers still being dependent on external support to remain farming.

What contribution is Grain SA making to ensuring the future profitability and sustainability of grain production in South Africa?
Successful grain production obviously depends on profitability. We, as Grain SA, therefore remain dedicated to our core business of maintaining and supporting economically sound grain production in order to provide sufficient, affordable food to the people of South Africa.

Grain producers need to have decision-makers in place who not only listen to them, but actually hear what they say.

Grain SA, as a highly prominent role player in the country’s agricultural structures, has succeeded in fostering excellent relationships in the agri-value chain, including with political functionaries. M

y message to farmers is that if you grow grain in South Africa, you need to support Grain SA. The old cliché that if you’re not at the table you might end up on the menu rings true in this case.

Sustainable grain production also forms the basis of the Grain SA Farmer Development Programme. It’s critical for any industry to invest in developing new entrants. Our farmer development programme is a service provider of note in terms of skills development and the holistic development of individuals as farmers.

Email Derek Mathews at [email protected].

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Annelie Coleman represents Farmer’s Weekly in the Free State, North West and Northern Cape. Agriculture is in her blood. She grew up on a maize farm in the Wesselsbron district where her brother is still continuing with the family business. Annelie is passionate about the area she works in and calls it ‘God’s own country’. She’s particularly interested in beef cattle farming, especially with the indigenous African breeds. She’s an avid reader and owns a comprehensive collection of Africana covering hunting in colonial Africa, missionary history of same period, as well as Rhodesian literature.