This is an extract of an article that was published by Business Report. Click here to read the full article.

Policymaking is an evolving and dynamic process to ensure that policies put in place are robust and agile in order to respond appropriately to current and future needs. There are two focal points for policy reforms in the land and agricultural sectors: those dealing mainly with issues pertaining to land, and those dealing with issues pertaining to the overall productivity and efficiency of the agricultural sector (production of food, fibre and energy). 

One of the key institutions dealing with research and technology creation and adoption in the agricultural sector, supporting what is a critical area of the economy, is the Agricultural Research Council (ARC). The COVID-19 pandemic has shown without a doubt the need for a capable state, the ability to make informed and effective decisions based on superior knowledge, and access to accurate and timely information.

At the heart of South Africa’s reaction to COVID-19 has been the pooling of resources of state, public, private and even international bodies and experiences to provide an informed, scientific response to an emergency facing not only South Africa, but also the whole world. Despite South Africa not being endowed with the best agro-climatic and physical resources and being water scarce, the country’s agriculture is renowned and is leading in many spheres. 

What makes a nation food secure?

Of critical importance is the fact that South Africa is one of the world’s few net exporters of food and at a national level has remained food secure. The notion of a nation that is food secure is not well understood and is therefore very much misinterpreted, with potentially disastrous consequences. 

What makes a nation food secure and what are the critical factors that keep a nation in a state of being food secure? The answer is a complex one and a short article like this will not do it justice. Well-documented research and studies show that that nations that invest in research stay ahead of the curve and the returns from research far outweigh the costs.

Unfortunately, the level of investment in research in general as well as in agricultural research has been dropping at alarming rates over the past few decades. For example, in 2017, the country’s gross expenditure on research and development was estimated at R32,3 billion and agriculture only accounted for a meagre 8%.

Lack of funding reduces capacity

More concerning is that despite South Africa’s commitment under the Maputo Declaration to maintain its overall spend on both agriculture (5 to 10% of total gross domestic product) and to agricultural research, this has not been met. The consequence has been quite severe on retaining both the capacity and excellence of the ARC, whose contribution to ensuring that South Africa’s national food secure status is undisputed, and even transcends to household food security.

The ARC operates 17 research campuses that cover the breadth and range of the agricultural sector. It has since establishment provided the South African agricultural sector with excellent agricultural research interventions and solutions. The continued weakening of the status and role of the ARC weakens the core of the country’s capacity to provide food, fibre and energy to its people and to retain its food secure status.

Lost capacity reduces South Africa’s ability to remain at the forefront of fast-changing agricultural technologies and less able to sustain the sector amid climate change, environmental challenges and a growing human population. A unit of the ARC provides more weather-based stations and information to guide SA Weather Services and the intelligence about the state of the country’s water resources than any other institution in the country.

Public and private collaboration

At risk is a contribution of less that R2 billion a year to maintain the ARC as a key capacity within the state. The amount of support that the state provides is matched by the private sector, typically on a one-to-one basis. This means that every R1 reduction in support leads to a R1 loss in private sector support, which in real terms means a R2 total reduction in funding, causing a significant downward spiral. 

The opportunity cost of not adequately funding and supporting institutions such as the ARC far outweighs the cost of doing so. It is important to have a broader view of agriculture’s contribution to the South African economy than merely its contribution to the GDP. Agriculture has multiple backward and forward linkages in the economy, and must be viewed as an important economic sector as well as an enabler. 

Agriculture plays a vital role in employment creation, poverty alleviation and addressing inequality in the South African society. At the heart of agriculture’s crucial role in the South African economy is research and development. It is imperative that the country should be at the cutting edge of technological advancement in agriculture to maintain the nation’s competitiveness and achieve and maintain food security. – Business Report