If we fail to talk, we’ll fail SA

There should be no dispute regarding the ultimate objective of agricultural development. If it’s not possible to work together, and if role players have divergent motives and hidden agendas, the country is going to be in big trouble, says Agri SA president Johannes Möller.

The planning it takes to win a world cup tournament does not take place overnight. Structures and systems must be in place long before the teams compete. In short, there must be a clear vision.

When it comes to agriculture, this vision seems to be lacking due to significant differences between stakeholders. As a result, they send confusing messages to role players. There are even contradictions within government itself, with officials sending out different messages. This can only destroy trust.

There are many issues of concern, but specific questions spring to mind. For example: Who can say with authority what the term “agrarian transformation” implies for commercial agriculture? What does an “acceptable” contribution to transformation by commercial farmers entail?

The fact is, movement without a destination or ultimate purpose is futile.

Government’s expectations
The National Planning Commission’s New Economic Growth Path and other policy documents make it clear that government expects agriculture to make a significant contribution to rural development and job creation.

Yet uncertainty about the future of commercial agriculture, exacerbated by the negative consequences 2011of certain legislation and sometimes radical political statements, is the very reason why agriculture has not met these growth expectations.

It’s also why we will probably not benefit fully from the upswing in global markets.

Valuing agriculture
With how much love for and knowledge of agriculture are decisions made about competitive, sustainable production? Is there enough understanding by consumers and administrators on what it takes to stand firm against strong agricultural competition?

I doubt it. In living memory, our population has never been exposed to a national food security crisis. The shops and supermarkets have always had enough of everything we need. Thus, outsiders often see a farmer’s life as largely an idyllic one, albeit interrupted from time to time by droughts or floods.

In most cases, people are ignorant about depressed profit margins, or safety, biological, climatic and market risks. Land is often equated with wealth, with little understanding of what it requires to prosper from land.

However, it’s also true that, for decades, a large section of our population was excluded from commercial agriculture.
Furthermore, urbanisation has seen communities becoming estranged from agriculture. As a result, millions of people no longer have a proper understanding of the complexity of farming.

We as farmers need to overcome this ignorance so that decision-makers and consumers realise that our insights are indispensable to agricultural policy-making. Communication aimed at correcting misconceptions is therefore vital.

Too little, too late
AgriSA appreciates the opportunity for consultation on certain critical issues, as in the case of the Green Paper on Land Reform, but finds it problematic that policy development is often at an advanced stage by the time consultation takes place. By then it’s difficult to make significant changes. This creates the impression of conflict, which has a negative effect on confidence.

A lack of consultation has resulted in AgriSA resorting to court action on several occasions to secure a fair dispensation. Although I have great appreciation for the Constitution and courts, which make it possible to stop undesirable policy choices, this is not the appropriate way to build confidence in the industry and to establish a winning culture.

Despite worldwide consensus that agriculture is heading for a golden age, there is concern about food security, especially in developing economies. There’s also a worry that fluctuating prices could discourage investment in production capacity. And to these are added the need to continue increasing agricultural production while reducing the impact on the environment.
Although SA faces challenges in restructuring its agriculture to meet demographic and social requirements, we cannot lose sight of these priorities.

It is therefore important that we take care of the basic function of agriculture – to produce food and fibre sustainably and competitively. This forms the foundation of stability and progress.

Contact Johannes Möller on 012 643 3400 or visit www agrisa.co.za.

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.