Agricultural output versus SA’s population growth

Nico Strydom and Jean Struweg, researchers in the Department of Finance and Investment Management at the University of Johannesburg, recently published an article in Agrekon, titled, ‘Malthus revisited: Long-term Trends in South African Population Growth and Agricultural Output’.

The paper discusses whether the agricultural sector can sustain South Africa’s rapidly increasing population.

Agricultural output versus SA’s population growth

Photo: Dr Jack
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In 1789, Thomas Malthus, an English cleric and scholar, argued that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”.

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In the modern era, the general assumption is that society can continue, and perhaps even expand, on its current lifestyle and consumption trajectory. However, this possibility is threatened by the significant increase in the global population. As
recently as 1960, the world population was estimated at three billion.

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In 2000, after only 40 years, this number had increased by 100,2% to an estimated six billion. By 2012, the global population had surpassed seven billion, and the average life expectancy had increased from 51,1 years in 1960 to 69,9 years.

A lower infant mortality rate, a longer average life expectancy, and the relative scarcity of life-threatening events such as widespread war and diseases have attributed to the global population increase. Thus, not only are there more people on the planet, but they occupy and draw resources from it for longer.

While the increase in food supply helped to promote the rapid growth of the world’s population, this growth may surpass the Earth’s capacity to sustain it.

South Africa’s growing population
In 1970, South Africa’s population was an estimated 22,1 million people. By 2012, this had increased to 51,2 million people – a 132% increase in only 42 years. It is estimated that South Africa’s population will reach 82 million by 2035.

After the political transition of 1994, South Africa has been fairly economically successful. However, as economic growth encourages larger families, the demand for food increases, thereby causing the inflation of food prices.

Additionally, many other factors, including unsuccessful land redistribution strategies, general uncertainty and the political climate, have put pressure on the country’s ability to maintain self- sufficiency in food production, and since the 1970s, South Africa’s per capita grain production has steadily declined.

  • Agricultural land in South Africa

While the country’s population increases exponentially over time with very few natural limits, the amount of land devoted to agricultural activities may reach a natural limit over a longer period of time (that is, the availability of arable land is finite).

Between 1970 and 2012, South Africa’s agricultural land, here referred to as a percentage of total land area that is arable and produces permanent crops and/or pastures, has hovered around 79%. Between 1985 and 2000, agricultural land increased by approximately 3,4%.

However, between 2000 and 2012, agricultural land declined by approximately 1,4%. While this was only a marginal decline, decisive policy measures must be employed to ensure that further downward pressure on the availability of agricultural land is circumvented.

The decline may not indicate a current problem, but the trend cannot continue indefinitely in unison with a swiftly growing population.

While the percentage of agricultural land did not increase significantly between 1970 and 2012, grain yield/ha (kg/ha of harvested land, including wheat, rice, maize, barley, oats, rye, millet, sorghum, buckwheat and mixed grains) significantly increased.

This is most likely a result of the improvement of agricultural technologies and techniques, which have increased nearly 400% between 1970 and 2012. The same phenomenon applies to South Africa’s total grain production, which increased 75% between 1970 and 2012.

However, this expansion is not sustainable, and the country will reach a point where technological advances cannot further expand the grain yield/ha.

Agricultural sustainability
The concern is whether agricultural output will be able to grow commensurately with the population in the near and distant future.

If the current agricultural system is subjected to external shocks such as drought, plague, widespread fires or significant labour unrest, grain production may decline further and, given consumption trends, may put severe pressure on South Africa’s food security.

The potential for such shocks is a reality that must be considered. One such example is the reliance on favourable weather patterns. In 2009/2010, no less than 91,4% of South Africa’s maize crop came from dryland production, and was thus solely reliant on rainfall.

Considering the change in climatic patterns, this is risky, and the current drought serves as a stark reminder of this fact.
These shocks have occurred almost every decade since 1970, and as a result, total maize production has declined so that consumption currently exceeds production.

While this in itself may not indicate a decline in food security, the declining trend of per capita maize production does suggest that growth in maize production is sensitive to shocks, and is not commensurate with population growth.

Due to international political unrest, potential problems in meeting South Africa’s maize consumption demands are already emerging. South Africa imports roughly 80% of its grain (including wheat and maize) from Ukraine, where conflict with Russia could affect the European country’s ability to produce and export grain.

The National Development Plan
The NDP’s primary objective is to “transform the economy and create sustainable expansion”. The NDP proposes achieving this through the implementation of various strategies, including an increase in exports, pursuing more efficient and competitive infrastructure, reducing the cost of living, and stimulating domestic industry.

One of the NDP’s goals is to expand the agricultural sector by increasing irrigated and dryland production, and by increasing agricultural exports. Another of the NDP’s goals is to reduce the working-class’s cost of living.

In terms of food security and food prices, this is a potential risk area. If the rand weakens significantly, and South Africa relies more heavily on imported foods, the cost of living will increase notably. The NDP’s final goal is to stimulate domestic industry and job creation. According to statistics, there was a 46% decline in the number of farmworkers between 1975 and 2007.

South Africa’s influence
South Africa consistently achieves a higher per capita grain production level than the whole of the SADC region, and between 1970 and 2012 contributed 43% of the total grain production for the region. Thus, it may be argued that the SADC’s food security is dependent on South Africa. While a decline in South Africa’s grain production may not immediately cause a Malthusian crisis in the region, many countries will be forced to import more agricultural products, driving up food prices and inflation.

On one hand, it is important that countries do not produce an excessive amount of grain, thereby flooding the markets and driving prices down. On the other hand, countries should not produce too little, as this necessitates excessive imports, drives prices and inflation up, and exposes consumers to foreign exchange risks.

Avoiding a MAlthusian crisis
If these trends continue unchecked, we shall become more vulnerable to shocks, which will threaten food security and increase our reliance on imported agricultural products. It is therefore apparent that our weakening relative position with regard to food security is a matter of concern.

Should our population continue to grow at such a significant rate, there are two possible options that can be utilised to avoid a Malthusian crisis:

  • Increase the grain yield/ha. This has a natural limit, and requires significant investments in research and technology, as well as government support.
  • Increase the amount of land under cultivation. This may not be possible due to increased urbanisation and the effects of global warming.

Ultimately, we need to ensure the stability of the agricultural sector to protect ourselves from food security vulnerability and unsustainable living costs.

Adapted from the Agrekon journal publication. 

This article was originally published in the 29 July 2016 issue of Farmer’s Weekly.