SA is falling behind

‘The Sector Plan for Agriculture proposed a substantive increase in agricultural research funding. The failure to implement this part of the plan endangers South African agriculture’s global competitiveness.’
Issue date 16 November 2007

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On 27 November 2001 the Department of Agriculture, Agri SA and Nafu signed the Strategic Plan for South African Agriculture. It set many general goals but only quantified the one for agricultural research and development, stating specifically that action needs to be taken to increase investment in agricultural research and education. It also extended the current low level of 1,04% of agriculture’s contribution to the Gross National Product (GNP) to meet the international benchmark of 3% – comparable to 3,7% in the US, 4% in Australia and 2,1% in the EU. A n implementation framework for the plan was released in April 2002. Since then a presidential working group with representatives from organised agriculture, agribusiness and government have met regularly to review the progress of the implementation of the plan.

But in a speech at the recent Agri SA congress, Prof Johann Kirsten, head of the Department of Economics at the University of Pretoria, evaluated that progress and concluded that in spite of huge efforts by agricultural industries to change their existing strategy to fit the sector plan’s format, agriculture is still no better off than it was in April 2002. Figure 1 shows government’s research and development expenditure as a percentage of the total GNP from 1910 to 2005. The Agricultural Business Chamber’s competitiveness index dropped from 55 in 2003 to 25 in 2006. country’s exports show a cyclical pattern while imports grow constantly over time. This indicates that we are self-sufficient in only a few agricultural products and have to import others to supply our population.

Finding the gaps T he main vehicle for government’s research and development strategy is the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) which recently tabled their 2006 annual report in parliament. According to that report they employ 170 PhDs out of a total “research staff” of 923 and a total personnel corps of 2 698. If one compares that to international trends, it is clear we are far behind other countries. Embrapa, the livestock division of Brazilian Agricultural Research, employs more than 6 000 PhD’s.

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lthough the 170 South African PhDs are identified as researchers, it is doubtful whether more than half of them are actively engaged in research. The names of well-known scientists at the ARC are only infrequently cited as co-authors of scientific publications. he ARC spends a lot of time and energy on emerging farmers and less time on commercial agriculture. If this trend continues commercial agriculture will find that their share of funding for research grows smaller and smaller.

Farmers will have to make provision to fund their own research through producer organisations because no matter how you look at it, global competitiveness depends on the ability of the local agricultural sector to identify new technology, adapt it to local conditions and implement it. Conditions in South Africa are so different that local trials are needed before one can begin to implement new technology. he South agricultural sector will be forced to choose between investing in research or falling behind and losing global competitiveness. They will have to decide whether the ARC, accountable to politicians, is the correct way to fund commercial agricultural research.

The investment would be worth it V arious studies show there is a high return on agricultural research and development spending and that it benefits people in the lower income groups more than it does people in higher income groups. It makes sense for government to invest in it. World food stock levels are very low and it is no longer possible to just import what one needs at reasonable prices. If government is serious about feeding the South African population, it will have to increase its research and development funding to at least the 3% of GDP mentioned in the sector plan. |fw