Saying South Africa is food secure when more than 14 million people go hungry each day, and more than a quarter of children under the age of five are stunted, shows a gross misunderstanding of what food security entails.

This was one of the key messages of Dr Marc Wegerif, lecturer in development studies at the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pretoria, during a food security webinar hosted by FarmSol, an agricultural development company.

“The statistic that shocks me all the time is that 27,4% of South African five-year-olds are stunted. It means that they have not physically, cognitively and emotionally developed in the way they should have. This has a lifelong impact on those affected and it is a loss for the nation,” Dr Wegerif said.

Panellists made it clear that the blame for the situation was not to be laid at the feet of farmers. It is rather a structural problem that needs a collaborative solution. Dr Wegerif explained that farmers could be part of the solution through job creation. However, expecting them to lower prices to render food more affordable is not feasible as the majority are already struggling to make ends meet.

Therefore, establishing a farmer-friendly environment would go a long way. “South Africa obviously cannot compete with European countries and the United States (US) when it comes to the provision of subsidies. However, government could introduce policies and mechanisms to better protect farmers against currency fluctuations and imports,” Dr Wegerif said.

Absence of a food policy

Prof Mohammad Karaan, a well-known agricultural economist from the Department of Agricultural Economics at Stellenbosch University, touched on the absence of a food policy in South Africa. “I am not sure that South Africa has an adequate food policy to guarantee there is food available to every citizen. We need a policy that specifically seeks to address food insecurity among the elderly, children and destitute people in our society. We have an agricultural policy, but it is not a food policy.”

Grants are not enough to address this social flaw. Prof Karaan said more efforts must be made to turn South Africa into a poor-friendly country – a country where the poor can have a decent quality of life. In addition, food insecurity in rural areas must be addressed.

This is becoming increasingly important considering that urbanisation is expected to result in 70% of our population living in cities by 2050. “People often think that urbanisation will help to alleviate poverty and address food insecurity. In fact, it can exacerbate the problem if not managed properly by adding pressure on resources that are already scarce in cities. Instead, we need to find ways to incentivise people to stay in the rural areas through, for example, job creation and farming support,” Prof Karaan said.

He is concerned about the growth in the number of vulnerable people from a food security point of view. “It will never adequately be provided for unless we can also solve the income problem.”

The opportunities for agricultural growth, labour absorption and productivity enhancement are certainly there, but it will only happen if the country has a conducive policy environment and there is adequate collaboration between the state and markets. This is the real challenge. “Those two systems should talk to each other because they are currently too far apart. We need a more collaborative environment to execute the common policy,” Prof Karaan said.

Farmer support and development

Aron Kole, managing director of FarmSol, said steps should be taken to ensure that all farmers – irrespective of the size of their farms – can access finances, resources, and technologies to farm competitively.

“It does not help that government has made 700 000ha of land available to smallholder farmer development, but they do not have access to finance or technologies to do something with the land and do it successfully.”

André Cloete, an award-winning farmer who farms on land made available through the Comprehensive Agricultural Support Programme (CASP) near Caledon, added that it is acceptable to give hand-outs to farmers who have nothing, but these farmers should be empowered to eventually stand on their own feet to avoid wasting money.

However, government should not be the only party responsible for this. “We need a collaborative approach to address food insecurity, with everyone from farmers to industry stakeholders and banks playing their individual roles in making this a success. We would have been a lot further today with land reform if this had been done from the start,” Cloete said.

Food security in ten years

When considering current trends, Dr Wegerif is pessimistic about how food security will change over the next ten years. “We see an increasing concentration of control in the agricultural sector, pressure on farmers and extraction of value going to large organisations and investors rather than to farmers or workers. It is no longer about delivering more affordable food to people and that has to change.”

However, he is optimistic in the sense that it can change. “It is up to us to put other options on the table. Farmers must survive. We have to change the environment so that they can survive, get a reasonable return, pay workers well and deliver food,” Dr Wegerif said. – Hugo Lochner, AgriOrbit