Food on the table, humanity’s ever-increasing battle

Food security, hungry people, ineffective government, supermarkets monopolies and not buying local, failures of small farmers – these are bigger issue, but less newsworthy than who heads up an extortionist soccer empire or what cellphone to buy next – and other issues that were in yesterday’s papers headlines. I usually prefer to read these mindless and remote stories than about issues that are painful – like where does our food come from and where does our common humanity begin – while criticizing Arab leaders we are immune to how our own local daily actions in supporting big business or preferring food and products moved around the globe to making sure local entrepreneurs and possible farmers gain support and opposing the relentless march of giant corporations that overwhelm governments and threaten local producers and smaller marketers. Here is a positive ending to this negative tirade – I believe we should voice our dissatisfaction and pause over our cup of organic coffee to think what we can do to help – even if its just to talk about them with our friends, business associates and to consider….By DONALD PAUL on Daily Maverick

The price of food continues to rise and will do so for the next 10 years. The reasons include increased fuel prices, the role of market speculators and a combination of political malfeasance and administrative ineptitude. The result, however, is certain: More people will go to bed hungry every night.

In a panel discussion on land reform the chairman of the parliamentary portfolio committee on rural development and land reform Stone Sizani countered the argument that farming the land should have priority over restitution where the land claimants do not continue farming (or fail), and dismissed the notion that food security was an issue in South Africa.

Sizani’s response highlights the complexity of food security. While his statement is correct—SA does produce enough food—it overlooks the fact that a significant number of individuals go to bed hungry. This is largely due to poverty, unemployment and issues of distribution and accessibility.

The government has committed R150 billion over the next three years to tackle unemployment and hopes to generate 5 million jobs in the next decade. People who are food insecure, however, cannot wait for a budget plan to kick in. If you are hungry today, you need to be fed today. Social security grants and the increase in people who are eligible, to some extent curtailed the number of food-insecure households, but only marginally.

The exact number of such households is not known. The Human Sciences Research Council through its Centre for Poverty, Employment and Growth found the 2007 General Household Survey indicated more than 11% of adults and children were “sometimes or always hungry”. The 2005 National Food Consumption Survey  claims 52% of households experience hunger.

Robert Fincham, Emeritus Professor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a founding trustee of the Msunduzi Innovation Development Institute, recently conducted a study in the townships and found “93% of households in the townships [around Pietermaritzburg] were food insecure”. The study covered 11 SADC countries and the results were all in the 80% range.

Increasing commercial farming output and improving distribution would seem an obvious solution. It’s worth noting that the 2002 census on agriculture showed a decrease of 12,162 commercial farming units since in 1993. It is also the commercial farms that indirectly contribute to price increases through greater use of oil-based fertilisers, commodity speculation along with transport costs, an expensive component in the food chain. Yet we are experiencing “de-agrarianisation”, moving from smallholder/subsistence agriculture to agribusiness.

Agricultural economist at the University of the Free State Mompathi Baiphethi and economist Peter Jacobs of the University of the Western Cape in an extensive study of the role of smallholder farmers found “subsistence production and/or smallholder production can increase food supplies and thus cushion households from food price shocks, thereby improving household food security”.

This is not a popular position, but it is endorsed by the Farmer Support Group at the Centre for Environment, Agriculture and Development at University of KwaZulu-Natal. Maxwell Mudhara, who heads the group, works mainly with smallholders farming communal land. The main problem they encounter is bridging the divide between subsistence farming and producing a surplus for the market. The farmers consistently run up against the bureaucracy and perfidiousness of those within the agro-food chain, including supermarkets, processors and distributors.

The farmers recognise they operate in a market-driven economy, but Maxwell feels more should be done for the “emerging or developing” farmers. “We find the motivation of the farmers is mainly food security, but we don’t see past that. We need to do more about diversifying crops as well as improving market access and distribution.”

Fincham instigated a survey of supermarkets and their role in the food chain. The survey looked at environmental and socio-economic impacts of their business practices, factors such as waste management and carbon footprints. Shivani Naidoo was part of the research team that looked at five supermarkets—four national chains and one local. “In terms of local economic development and sourcing locally, it seems to be a huge issue with the supermarkets. We had examples of produce from Durban, sent to Johannesburg and then brought back to go on the shelves in Pietermaritzburg,” she says.

Fincham says an alternative is to look at the smaller stores which are being displaced by the superstores. “The local department of agriculture says it wants to work with the smallholder farmers, but there is very little production around here for vegetables and fruit. The supermarkets don’t promote local.”

This problem led to the establishment of LEGAC (pronounced “le-ga-see”)—Leading Economic Growth through Agricultural Commitment. As Fincham points out, small farmers are giving up because they can’t access markets for their produce. And when they do, it is often not financially viable. He cites the example of a smallholder taking a bakkie-load of butternuts to the market and getting only R350 for the lot, not enough even to cover fuel costs.

“What we did with LEGAC was select a group of 10 trainees with the idea being if they can they grow the food, can we then process it in some way at the local agri-hub (which in this case was the Edendale Lay Ecumenical Centre) and then, could we actually market and sell it. The model was built on the idea of the food value chain. the trainees would be part of a process of developing their own company. We set up a company, which has two parts. The closed corporation, which is theirs along with any profits, and then a group of us, like a board of directors, who administer the company.”

The project is having some teething problems, mainly says Fincham, because you can’t take an arbitrary group of youngsters and make them farmers overnight. “I see it as a long, long road before they become farmers. How do you get a vision to own a farm, to become a farmer?”

A start would be pressuring the agro-food business to put into practice ideas around local economic development, limiting its carbon footprint and buying locally. Once the farmers see there is money in putting food on the table, there is hope the vision of being a farmer will become a reality and, in the process, alleviate food insecurity. DM


Donald Paul is a freelance writer. This the third and final in a series of three articles made possible by an Open Society Foundation for South Africa Media Fellowship.

Photo: A customer prepares to pay for a small bag of maize meal at a shop in Soweto south west of Johannesburg, March 23, 2008. Food prices are soaring, a wealthier Asia is demanding better food and farmers can’t keep up. In short, the world is in a food crisis that is in danger of boiling over. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.

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