/Dan Kriek: We need to monitor food security as closely as our health

Dan Kriek: We need to monitor food security as closely as our health

2020-04-05 13:28

The inherent risk of neglecting our agricultural sector, as well as the formal and informal supply chains it sustains, is simply too ghastly to contemplate. An “Arab spring” uprising among hungry people must never be allowed to happen in South Africa, writes Dan Kriek.

What does it help if we pull all the stops to protect our health, but we forget to ensure that everyone has an adequate food supply? The Covid-19 pandemic will accentuate levels of inequality in society in ways we have not anticipated, unless we start paying closer attention to food security among the poorest of the poor.

The biggest challenge affluent and middle class South Africans face may be a shortage of luxuries on the shelves at Woolworths, but the new regulations do not take into account the complex food supply systems in townships and poor communities. 

While farmers, farm workers and retailers were all classified as essential services, and quickly and easily obtained permits to work and move around, informal food suppliers did not. This includes spaza shops and informal traders in taxi ranks and on the roadside.  

As a farmer, I often wonder what the biggest risk would be for our stability as a nation. The kind of calamitous trigger event that would result in heightened levels of social instability on a national scale. Would it be a racially or politically inspired incident; for example, how the assassination of Chris Hani brought us to the precipice in 1993? Or maybe widespread famine and water shortages caused by a catastrophic long-term drought? Something like the anticipated day zero in Cape Town a while back?

The top national risks, however, have always been associated with widespread food insecurity and hunger, but I never foresaw that a virus outbreak, of all things, would lay bare our vulnerabilities to the extent that the coronavirus has done as far as the informal food market is concerned.  We will have to deal with the fall out swiftly, efficiently, and in a spirit of cooperation.

When the government announced the lockdown measures, agricultural commentators, including myself, were eager to point out that South Africa is food secure and citizens need not resort to panic buying.

Informal food market

This is still true. However, the haste with which regulations were promulgated for various sub-sectors of the economy has resulted in unforeseen and unintended consequences. The informal food supply systems were already so complex, and the quick changes in regulations saw a significant impact on the informal food market.

The informal food market is a complex food delivery system, consisting of spaza shops, bakkie traders, vendors and hawkers. Estimates are that 30% of South Africa’s food is distributed through the informal market to our rural areas, townships and informal settlements. Although major retail outlets expanded their operations into townships, the informal market continues to play a critical role in the everyday life of millions of South Africans.

It operates according to free market principles and is different from other food supply chains, where two or more major role players may dominate the market. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” or unobservable market force of supply and demand equilibrium is at work here. It is largely unregulated and, therefore, highly susceptible to interference or disruption.

The Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) calculated the household level expenditure data, as reported in the Stats SA Living Conditions Survey 2014/2015, and adjusted it for inflation to February 2020 values. The top 10 food items purchased by the least affluent 50% of the South African population in order of importance are: chicken, maize meal, brown bread, beef, rice, white sugar, aerated cold drinks, white bread, fresh potatoes and wheat flour. These 10 items represent approximately two-thirds of the total food expenditure of these households.

The BFAP study also pointed out that vegetables, like fresh potatoes, cabbage, onions and tomatoes, and fresh fruit, like oranges, apples and bananas, are most likely to be purchased from informal street traders. We are already seeing price increases in a product like potatoes.

It is critical that permits for informal traders are issued speedily and efficiently. This past week, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma announced that informal traders could apply for permits from ward councillors and municipal officers in order to speed up the process. But I am not convinced that ward councillors and municipal officers are geared to deal with this in a coordinated and timeous manner. The threat of corruption and mismanagement is always lurking and must be avoided at all cost.  

In addition, the regulatory restrictions on transport, especially the taxi industry, will play havoc with the informal distribution and buying of food. The timeous adjustment of transport regulations will be of great value in this regard, but we must weigh up the associated risk of allowing more people to move around with the risk of certain areas running out of food.

We need a far better understanding of the impact of regulations on critical factors like transport, mobility of citizens, household income and food price fluctuations in challenging times like these. We already have the challenge of household food security in terms of affordability and accessibility in our informal settlements and deep rural areas. We need to clearly understand where and how any disruption would further impact the poorest of the poor.

On the upside, it is heartening to see that President Cyril Ramaphosa and cabinet ministers, like Thoko Didiza, have assembled teams of agricultural specialists from the private sector to assist government in dealing with the pandemic.

I cannot over-emphasise the importance of credible research and data provided by institutions like BFAP, the Agricultural Business Chamber, Agri SA, the African Farmers Association of South Africa and various other agricultural commodity organisations in dealing with the challenge of food accessibility and affordability. Cooperation will carry the day.  

My intention is not fearmongering, but the inherent risk of neglecting our agricultural sector and the formal and informal supply chains it sustains; it is simply too ghastly to contemplate. An “Arab spring” uprising among hungry people must never be allowed to happen in South Africa.

In the end, I still feel we will prevail. We will prevail because we are a caring society.

Our level of cooperation in dealing with the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable in society, in terms their health and nutritional requirements, must attest to that.

 – Dan Kriek served as president of Agri-SA until 2019. He farms with south Devon cattle in the eastern Free State. 

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