Posted on March 14, 2008

Food Shortages Imminent—Is Anybody Listening?

South African Bulletin (TAU SA in Pretoria), March 14, 2008

Entitled “A Furious Hunger”, an article in the latest Time magazine paints a sinister picture of a world on the brink of serious food shortages. From Mexico to Pakistan, to Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mauritania, India and Egypt, food riots have broken out, with violence in the streets, and the looting and burning of government buildings.

This is not only a food issue, it is a security issue, says the director general of the Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, Joachim von Braun. Food prices are not going down—billions of people are buying greater quantities of food, oil prices have increased which have pushed up fertilizer, transport and shipping costs. Then there’s the climate, says Time—freak weather throughout the world has crimped harvests, and the rush to produce bio-fuels to replace oil dependency has resulted in thousands of US farmers now producing maize for fuel instead of for food consumption. Global food stockpiles have dwindled to their lowest point in decades. The world supply of wheat is at its lowest in fifty years, and there’s just five weeks worth of consumption available for the world’s more than six billion people. Food security may soon depend more on availability than affordability. One example: wheat stocks worldwide declined by 11% in 2007.

In South Africa, wheat prices have more than doubled over the past year. Internationally, from 2004 to 2006, wheat prices increased by 34%, maize by 54%, soya oil by 71% and sugar by 75%, while wheat increased again 35% from 2006 to 2007. In a single day in February of this year, wheat prices jumped 25% after Kazakhstan’s government announced plans to restrict exports of its wheat crop for fear there would not be enough for its own population. India and Egypt are also restricting food exports. The United States which provides half the world’s food aid has now decided to halve this amount. It is also talking about cutting exports, as more grains are converted to bio-fuel use.

Many South African farmers would prefer to plant maize instead of wheat as yields are lower for the latter—1,8 to 2 tons per hectare for wheat while maize yields 3 tons or more a hectare. Since 1997/8, there has been a 51% drop in national wheat planting, and South Africa already has to import more than 1,3 millions tons of wheat per annum.

“The systematic deterioration of the profitability of SA agriculture in general, particularly wheat production, is the main reason for the recent relatively large increases in wheat prices” says Neels Ferreira, chairperson of Grain South Africa.

HUNGER IN THE WORLD According to the US Department of Agriculture, there are 849 million hungry people in 70 lower income countries around the world. According to Dr Koos Coetzee, agricultural economist, more than 40% of food deficient people live in sub-Saharan Africa. Dr Coetzee believes that if the South African government persists with its transfer of 30% of South Africa’s productive farmland to subsistence dwellers and/or farmers by 2014, South Africa will have to import food.

South African farmers—less than .01% of the population—can currently produce enough food for local use and export. So wouldn’t it be expected that this sector would be nurtured and cherished and treated with kid gloves by the South African government? Alas, not so. On the contrary, as one South African farmer wrote in Farmer’s Weekly: “One fact is clear to me, Lulama Xingwana (Minister of Land and Agriculture) clearly has it in for the white farming community.”

Is someone going to stop this minister before it’s too late? The policy of handing over productive farms to subsistence dwellers in the main has caused a drop in production as most of these farms are either in ruins or have become squatter camps. Failure stares her in the face but she continues along this path of non-performance. At a recent AgriBEE Showcasing (?) in Cape Town, Minister Xingwana called upon farmers to plant more wheat! She also voiced her concern over the lack of interest among the youth in agriculture!

This of course begs the question as to why young South Africans should farm under the onerous and unfair legislation now crimping farming in this country, the threats of expropriation if farmers do not toe the line with regard to price when a farm has been claimed, and the fact that in some provinces, more than 80% of farms are under claim. Local taxes are demanded of farmers when they receive nothing in return, input costs are sky high, and Department of Agriculture support services are seriously lacking in skills.

One example: there is a severe shortage of state veterinarians—at the end of last year twenty of the possible 38 posts for state vets in the Department of Agriculture’s Directorate for Veterinary Services were vacant. This shortage has had an “immense impact on the red meat industry, especially where controlled diseases such as Brucellosis are concerned”, says Gerhard Schutte, CEO of the Red Meat Producers Association. “We were on the verge of completely eradicating the disease, but a shortage of vets led to a turnabout for the worse”.

South Africa is now doubtful of EU acceptance of its meat and this can also be traced back to certification problems due to a lack of skilled veterinarians. Mr Schutte added that long-standing surveillance programmes of contagious abortions and tuberculosis are not being carried out sufficiently, and this deficiency can be laid at the door of affirmative action, where posts have been earmarked for “designated groups”.

Because of poor administrative talents within the department, those who do apply for posts have to sometimes wait for a year before the position is filled. This affirmative action approach has been going on for years—in March 2006, the Department of Agriculture’s advertisements for posts stipulated that “it is the Department’s intention to promote equity through the filling of all numeric targets as contained in the Employment Equity Plan. To facilitate this process successfully, an indication of race, gender and disability status is required. (Sunday Times 5 March, 2006) In the same edition, a post for a Research Veterinarian was advertised by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) which declared in the advertisement that it was “a science and technology institution of excellence in South Africa”, and that its operations were “accountable to the Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs”. At the bottom of the advertisement was the crucial phrase “The ARC is an equal opportunity employer”, government speak for “blacks need only apply”.

The Minister speaks with forked tongue, and she is taking South Africa’s food security situation down a one-way street. Warnings are going unheeded, as were warnings about Eskom and current warnings about roads and water pollution. Experts say that the scale of deterioration of South African roads may be on the same level as Eskom—the South African Roads Federation declares that South African roads are “on the brink of collapse because of poor maintenance, bad planning and an exodus of professional engineers.” The lack of foresight seen with the Eskom debacle is playing out in the Departments of Agriculture and other government sectors, while the Minister of Agriculture “is gambling with the future of South Africa” (Business Report February 15, 2008)

She is reported as having remarked she would not mind if the value of farmland in South Africa plummeted, as it would make it easier for the previously disadvantaged to gain access to it. This minister is guilty of food security treason, and her actions do not disprove this statement. She is reckless, power driven and dangerously ignorant. It is time she is removed before we see food riots in the streets of South Africa.