Food security in South Africa

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Agricultural innovation needs to be encouraged in a responsible manner and not strangled by a bureaucratic regulatory system.

MORE than 200 years ago, the political economist, Thomas Malthus, predicted that population growth would eventually exceed the world’s ability to feed so many people. The challenge today is to feed additional billions, and this can be done only through encouraging agricultural innovation.

Internationally, there are three main factors threatening food security. The first is not new and is in line with the Malthusian theory of population growth. The world population is currently close to 7-billion and is expected to reach 9- billion in 2050. In the next 15 years, the number of people in sub- Saharan Africa is expected to increase by 43% to 1,93-billion, despite the effects of HIV/AIDS and other health issues.

The second factor is the effect of economic development and income distribution in highly populated developing countries. It is expected that in the next couple of years about 1-billion people will have moved into the middle-class group in Asia. In China, the effect on food demand is already apparent — in 1995, China produced and consumed 14- million tons of soybeans; last year it produced 14-million tons but had to import an additional 70-million tons.

While the first two factors are more or less in line with the Malthusian theory, Malthus had no concept of mankind’s eventual dependence on one of the world’s other finite resources, oil, and its link to agriculture as a portion of the maize crop is used for ethanol production. A fourth (debatably exogenous) factor that could be added is climate change. Climate change could result in an increase in the frequency and severity of adverse weather conditions with harmful effects on food security — food availability, food accessibility, food utilisation and food-systems stability.

Based on these four factors, like Malthus, there seems to be little reason for us to be optimistic about the future. However, in a later work, Malthus speculated that “impending scarcity could stimulate creative responses to mitigate or curtail resource depletion”. This is an apt description of what is today known as investment in research and development (R&D). Agricultural R&D and the resulting technological advances have been the main reason mankind has so far been able, to a large degree, to avoid the Malthusian trap.

International investment in agricultural R&D, both public and private, has led to sharply increased food production per hectare through more effective production practices, improved chemicals (fertiliser and for pest control) as well as improved seed varieties. The effect of R&D on agricultural production is apparent from SA’s historic maize production data.

It is clear that maize yields are affected by rainfall and, in recent years, by the fact that less maize is planted on marginal lands. However, it is also possible to identify stages of technology adoption. Before 1950, yields were fairly stagnant at 0,6 to 1,0 tons of maize grain per hectare .

The introduction of the first public-bred maize hybrids in the 1950s marked the dawn of the “Green Revolution” and this period also saw improved farming practices, increased fertiliser use and more effective pest control. As a result, yields increased to 1,5-1,7 tons per hectare.

In the 1960s, more dynamic breeding and research by private seed companies resulted in a significantly expanded range of hybrids with improved yield potential and disease resistance. Farming systems continued to improve and the national yield average increased to 2- 2,3 tons per hectare.

The fourth era started in the mid-1990s with a move to “precision farming” and an increase in the number of locally adapted high-potential maize hybrids. These hybrids were the products of private seed company breeding programmes, which used more precise breeding tools, such as marker-assisted selection. The average yield increased to more than three tons per hectare.

Since 2001, South African maize farmers have also been able to benefit from the more effective insect and weed control properties of genetically modified (GM) maize varieties and by the 2010-11 season GM maize (insect resistant and herbicide tolerant) covered 77% of the total South African maize area.

Food security is attracting increasing international attention.

In June this year, the DuPont Advisory Committee on Agricultural Innovation and Productivity released a report detailing recommendations for closing the food productivity gap.

Its recommendations were focused on three areas — produce more food and increase the nutritional value of food; make food accessible and affordable to everyone; and address the challenge in a continuously more sustainable and comprehensive way.

There are a number of tools available to African farmers to help increase food productivity. These include farming methods. In the future, genetic modification and other applications of modern biotechnology will, in all likelihood, play a substantial role in addressing the problem of increasing productivity under less than ideal climatic conditions. Useful GM products might include crops with drought tolerance, salinity tolerance, or products with quality traits such as oranges and sorghum with high vitamin C or A, or peanuts and wheat with no aflatoxin or allergenicity problems.

To date, South African farmers and consumers have been able to benefit from advances in agricultural technology due to the institutional infrastructure created by the pre- and post-democratic governments through investment in public research institutions, education and training of scientists and the establishment of guiding policies, legislation and regulatory authorities.

Due to a sound scientific background, South African authorities were, for instance, able to assess the permit applications for general release of GM cotton, maize and soybeans in a responsible and scientifically rigorous manner. As D eputy Agriculture Minister Pieter Mulder said this year, both SA and Africa require funding for scientific research to further inform the GM debate.

However, more recently it seems as if the regulation of genetically modified crops in SA has become more a bureaucratic hurdle than an enabling environment. For instance, getting approval for a basic permit to do confined “test of concept” trials with GM products has become a frustrating and expensive endeavour — not only for private companies but also for public research entities. Whether this is a result of lack of capacity or lobby group influence is not clear.

What is clear is the potential damage this could do to South African food production and food security.

The Bric countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are reportedly reconsidering their investment opportunities in SA to the benefit of other African countries. Similarly, research entities may consider other African countries for their investment in agricultural research, development and capacity building. This is a reality South African consumers cannot afford.

Food security in SA, and arguably in the region, depends on continually increasing crop yields per hectare and improved nutrition. Agricultural innovation, the “creative responses” suggested by Malthus, has so far kept scarcity at bay.

This innovation needs to be encouraged in a responsible manner and not strangled by a bureaucratic regulatory system.

Source: BusinessDay.co.za | by Andre Louw, Professor of Agribusiness Management at The University of Pretoria

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