Rethink required for agricultural success

The government and farmers need to shift their paradigm to achieve the objectives of a stable, food secure and safe future for all South Africans. In delivering his presidential address at the Agri SA conference, Johannes Möller pinpointed some areas that need rethinking.

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This conference is held at a time when South Africans must choose between different philosophies and approaches to underpin the country’s economic and social development. When contradiction and inconsistency regarding the points of departure relevant to business decisions prevail at policy level, it paralyses the business community, including agriculture. This impacts directly on development, industry participant confidence and industry support structures.

We deal with change on a daily basis – how we adapt to it will determine whether we will be better or worse off, progress or fall behind or emerge a winner or a loser. Sometimes there are radical changes and forces within the community and economic environment that require individuals, organisations, businesses and policy-makers to make a drastic paradigm shift in order to make the right decisions, irrespective of short-term discomfort.

Profound changes within the community, the economy and the local and international political environment require us to think anew of positioning to make the right choices and ensure that these are incorporated into our action plans and implemented properly. To manage significant adjustments in the best interests of society and the economy is not an easy task.

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One should, therefore, be circumspect with criticism and as far as possible support decisions and actions that can contribute to a long-term outcome which will produce good results. Similarly, it can be a challenge to take a stand against wrong approaches, when necessary, without jeopardising relationships. Ultimately it requires good statesmanship to inspire others in the community, including civic organisations and individuals, to share a future vision and co-operate in a partnership for a better future.

The greater the national consensus on the vision that should be pursued and the challenges that must be overcome in the process, the greater the chances that we will collectively achieve a result that will benefit most of us. In the national context, the result will be visible in social stability, more opportunities for marginalised communities and general progress.

On the other hand, the more we differ as to the way forward and the obstacles that must be overcome, the greater the likelihood that we will collectively contribute to massive failure. We then face poor economic growth and instability due to lack of opportunities, with increasing poverty and even food shortages. This will be a high-risk environment for everyone with a vested interest in a prosperous South Africa.

Imminent threats
Agri SA is concerned that some of South Africa’s best agricultural land and limited water resources are not fully valued when weighed up against mining development. We realise that mining is essential, but believe that a balance is lacking and that future generations will blame today’s decision-makers for the irrecoverable damage caused for the sake of short-term gain.

In future, access to clean water and food security could be affected by this. There is still time to prevent the situation from worsening, but it will require leadership and political will. This is a matter on which stakeholders in society should unite and demand a regulatory environment that will ensure compliance. The Constitution instructs the state to meet its responsibilities in this regard.

With regard to labour in agriculture, Agri SA has already adopted a clear stance. Sound labour relations, fair wages and the social well-being of workers and their families must meet the minimum statutory requirements and comply with acceptable moral and ethic standards. Apparently agriculture can create far more jobs than is currently the case. However, this will only happen if it is easy to employ people, without it being extremely difficult to dismiss and evict such workers, should circumstances warrant it.

In a competitive global environment, complex value chains have developed to ensure that food of the right quantity and quality is available to consumers at acceptable prices. The ability of local farmers to participate in this environment depends not only on their production skills but also on their capacity to be competitive on a cost and reliability basis. In this regard it is no secret that commercial farmers in SA receive one of the lowest levels of government support and protection compared to that of their competitors in developed countries.

The recent sharp escalation in administered prices is a source of grave concern in terms of local farmers’ continued competitiveness. This also applies to deteriorated rural infrastructure such as roads, rail transport and telecommunication, which increases their cost of doing business. Besides the fact that farmers already contribute to the maintenance of infrastructure services via the tax and tariff dispensation, they are increasingly accepting direct responsibility for certain services. This needs to be addressed.

Land reform
The land debate has various dimensions. Agri SA is of the opinion that natural resources such as land, mineral rights and water should be owned privately, although the regulation thereof is advisable. Market factors should govern their allocation for productive use. The recognition that the Constitution gives to private property rights is important for farmer confidence, and for the purpose of financing and development.

We also realise that it is important for the state to have the power to acquire such assets in the public interest and for public purposes. How else can land be acquired for infrastructure and restitution purposes? But it will be unforgivable to
undertake development, corrective action and empowerment at the expense of individuals from whom such assets are acquired.

It should be the community’s collective responsibility and never a situation where a statutory mandate is used in an attempt to correct injustices of the past in an unjust manner. It is important to correct the illusion that the broadening of access to land implies an increase in wealth and that improved food production and food security would be a logical outflow of transformation.

It could certainly contribute, but to date it has not been possible to create an effective enabling environment where access to agriculture’s assets had led to the ability to generate sufficient income and ultimately a better financial position for such people. It is my view that existing commercial agriculture’s contribution in this regard is indispensable and that an enabling environment should be created to assist and encourage farmers to make such contributions in the interest of broad-based development.

I am, for various reasons, positive about agriculture’s future. The need to expand food production in the short and long term is a priority for South Africa, and Southern Africa, with regular food shortages yet under-utilised agricultural potential.
Robert Carlson, president of the World Farmers’ Organisation, recently called on farmers across the world to increase their production in 2012/2013 because stock levels of grain and oilseed were dangerously low.

While everything is not necessarily rosy in every branch of agriculture or on every farm, agriculture in SA has performed well for the past five years. Net farming income improved to R51,5 billion for mid-year 2011/2012, compared to R32,8 billion for the corresponding period in 2010/2011. This inspires continued investment in capital equipment and improves our potential for maintaining and expanding production.

The acknowledgement that the government’s policy documents such as the New Growth Path and the National Development Plan give to agricultural development and the fact that agriculture in rural areas has the potential to contribute substantially to further job creation and social upliftment of marginalised communities, creates an opportunity for initiatives which include training and infrastructure development. 

Contact Johannes Möller on 021 643 3400
The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly