Will SA be able to feed others?

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In years past, food security was defined in terms of a country’s ability to buy enough food for its inhabitants from somewhere in the world. The 2007/2008 food crisis showed, however, that while a country may be able to afford these supplies, the food itself might not be available on the open market.

A survey by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) identified more than 50 measures instituted by countries to ensure local food security. But the food crisis was not really solved in 2008 – lower demand as a result of the recession temporarily balanced food supply and demand. Many developing countries depend on food aid to provide enough food for their inhabitants. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are among these.

Unfortunately, food aid is dependent on surplus production in developed countries. If prices are high and surpluses low, food aid is reduced to the minimum. In 2000, world food was more than 10 million tons; in 2011, it was only four million tons.
Food aid also disrupts and in many cases destroys fledging local processing industries. Thus, no country ought to rely on food aid to fill the gap between production and consumption.

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Improved food security
A recent study by the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service found that food security had improved in most developing countries, with consumption exceeding the widely accepted 2 100 calories/ day minimum nutritional standard. Consumption of basic food nutrients, carbohydrates, fat and protein had also increased markedly.

But differences between individual countries and between population groups within countries are large, and many individuals in the lowest income groups do not reach the 2 100-calorie level. Food security in the 76 countries analysed
did not change much from 2012 to 2013. Currently, there are an estimated 707 million food-insecure people in the world, three million more than in 2012. But long-term progress in overall food security is evident in most countries.

Read: Efficiency measures for farmers

In SSA, the share of the population that is food-insecure decreased from 52% in 2000 to below 30% in 2013. One of the main reasons for this improvement is the increase in income of the lower income groups. According to the World Bank, the share of people living below $1,25 per day (R13) had decreased to less than 21% in 2010.

The South African situation
In global terms, South Africa is not food-insecure, although there are food-deficient people in the country. On the other hand, South Africa’s commercial farmers succeed in producing enough affordable food for our own population and manage to export some food products to other countries. The income distribution of our population has changed rapidly since 1994. The percentage of the adult population in the middle income groups has increased, while the percentage in the lowest income group has decreased.

We have the most urbanised population in Africa. Higher income, urbanised people are unable to produce their own food. The demand on commercial farmers to produce food is thus increasing. And yet South Africa’s commercial farmers have been able to produce food under trying conditions. In addition to its growing local market, South Africa is favourably situated to sell produce into neighbouring African countries.

As people become more affluent, food demand in SSA will continue to grow – especially the demand for protein and fat. But while there is still scope for expanding farming operations in South Africa, many farmers are increasingly moving to these African countries, thanks to government’s fixation on land reform. While this development is certainly favourable on a regional basis, farmers leaving South Africa do not contribute to employment, taxes or food security on a local level.

Needed: a change of attitude
The bottom line is that if government regards a vibrant, growing local commercial agricultural sector as important in terms of food security, it has to change its attitude to agriculture drastically, otherwise South Africa may become a net food importer from the other SSA countries.

Dr Koos Coetzee is an agricultural economist at the MPO. All opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect MPO policy.