According to the latest available research, some 54% of South African households still experience either hunger or the risk of hunger. This means that in over half South African households, people living in those houses either do not have enough to eat, or aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from.
That is a frightening prospect – for the children and adults in those homes, and for the country as a whole. The consequences for both individuals and our society are dire – from stunting in early childhood (and all its lasting and harmful effects on individual physical and psychological wellbeing) social ills (revolutions have been sparked by the hungry), to the long-term burden on a national health department already creaking under the current pressures.
Yet food security received only two passing references in the State of the Nation Address by President Cyril Ramaphosa, and not a single mention in the Budget Speech by the Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, on 20 February 2019. In fact, the closest Minister Mboweni got to mentioning food security was in an early Biblical reference, and in mentioning his own experiences as a “part-time farmer”. He quoted Zechariah 8:12: “For the seed shall be prosperous; the vine shall give her fruit, and the ground shall give her increase, and the heavens shall give their due; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things.”
Plant well, and the people shall prosper, he appears to be saying.
Alas, this perhaps also sums up the government’s approach to food security – food security equals food production. If we support agriculture, the message appears to be, food insecurity will be a thing of the past. “Agricultural exports are an important source of revenue for our economy, and developing our agricultural sector is key to enhancing our food security and for attracting investment,” the President said in his SONA, in which land and land reform got numerous mentions.
So the government will do more to support private sector investment in agriculture by emerging farms. The Minister announced in his speech that he will allocate R1.8 billion for the implementation of 262 priority land-reform projects over the next three years, and has set aside R3.7 billion to help emerging farmers to acquire land to farm. The Minister also upped the “sugar tax” on soft drinks, but perhaps more as a revenue raising measure than an attempt to improve the health of South Africans.
Necessary as these measures are, they are not enough. Food security is not merely a function of food production. In fact South Africa already does well in this regard. Our supermarket and spaza shop shelves are well stocked, albeit often with foods that are obesogenic, sometimes with foods that are counterfeit, and shockingly, in 2018/17, with food that was laced with listeria.
But we are failing miserably at making sure that more, if not all, of our households are able to put enough of that food on their tables. This food must be safe, nutritious and affordable too.
So, the debate, and the allocations of money, has to be about more than the production of food.
The outcome of a production-focused approach to food security is that we are being myopic in our planning. We are assuming that, in 20 years from now, nothing would have changed, that all variables will remain the same. We are not thinking about the consequences of the increased economic migration of the population from rural to urban areas. We are not thinking of the possibilities and potential of different food futures, and other food systems that are less concentrated and decentralised (i.e. urban areas producing its food within its immediate region rather than relying on food production in rural areas), and we are not thinking about the implications of climate change.
There are immediate steps that can be taken. We would, for instance, suggest that no VAT be charged on nutritious foods such as peanut butter that were not identified by the Woolard Committee report which recommended a list of zero-VAT foods during 2018. We had hoped, in announcing his budget, that the Minister would increase funds for drought relief and flood damage to the farming sector in anticipation of future impact of climate change. That he would set funds aside to improve the implementation of food safety regulation following the deadly listeria outbreak and subsequent food safety breakdowns. That funding be increased for research and innovation in the food production, processing and distribution sectors, some of which would be from the 4th Industrial Revolution that was mentioned in SONA.
And most importantly, we would like to see the Child Support Grant increased to at least R550 per month – the cost of securing a basic but nutritionally complete diet for a child between the ages of 3-9 years; instead, the Minister announced increases of 5% (from the current R400 to R420 in April) and a further 2.5% (to R430) in October. The CSG is still the single most important intervention to reduce the food insecurity of children, who are, as the Minister said, our future.
Few of these modest recommendations were made in the budget. Which suggests that there is still a lot to be done to raise awareness about the other critical dimension of food security, particularly access and safety. We would need, again, to stress the imperative for the country to make substantial socio-economic progress to reach acceptable levels of food security (well below its current rates). It is indeed fitting that the Minister made reference to Oliver Twist. Let’s not forget that that Oliver turned to a life of crime when he was starving and exhausted. What would have been his future had Nancy not stepped in?
It’s clear that we will need to think out of the box. At least more than Minister appears to have done for the current budget.