OP-ED

The policy shift South Africa needs to achieve food sustainability

By Raymond Auerbach 22 July 2020

Agricultural researchers have developed strategies for supporting smallholder farmers with training, quality management, shortening value chains and improving soil fertility, says the writer. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

Already facing a multidimensional agricultural crisis, South Africa urgently needs to direct more funding for agricultural research that serves the public good, rather than just assisting to boost agribusiness profits. New cuts to the agriculture budget will further put our food security at risk.

Raymond Auerbach

The SA food system is in a precarious situation. Already there is ample evidence of the impacts of climate change, deterioration in food quality and increased vulnerability of smallholder farmers. Coupled with the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on employment and food prices, and spiralling government debt, South Africa has an impending multidimensional crisis to address.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s Covid-19 Budget does not address the issue. It has been criticised by a consortium of civil society organisations for only aiding farmers who farm with chemical inputs – assistance can only be used to buy synthetic fertiliser and poisons. On top of that, Agriculture Minister Thoko Didiza has announced that her department plans to make massive “savings” by slashing items in the agriculture budget. The consequences for food security (cut by R939-million) will be severe.

We have a solid understanding of what we need to be doing to address the food system challenges. Agricultural researchers have developed strategies for dealing with climate change and food quality, as well as for supporting smallholder farmers with training, quality management, shortening value chains and improving soil fertility.

A key strategy for the future is ecological organic agriculture (EOA) which the African Union (AU) has adopted as an important part of its strategy to empower farmers and improve African food security. The African heads of state recently commissioned a study on how to make EOA mainstream in Africa, hoping to show a path to health and sustainability in Africa.

South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council published a penetrating analysis of the difficulties already facing SA food systems in 2016. The ARC Vision 2050 pointed out that SA agriculture has to deal with a change imperative made up of many factors. Among these are increasing population, climate change impacts, urbanisation, deterioration in soil, plant and animal health, energy supply, water availability and quality, pest, and disease outbreaks and reduced biodiversity. It warned that input and commodity prices are likely to increase substantially. This is now more urgent with the Covid-19 pandemic, given its significant impacts on the economy, employment, and food security.

The ARC Vision 2050 outlines four possible scenarios for the future. Three of these are very unhappy prospects, two of them being based on unsustainable agricultural production, and one on food and nutrition insecurity.

In order to arrive at a future that uses resources sustainably and secures adequate food and nutrition, the document notes that the country requires policies which create an enabling agricultural environment, security of land tenure and, critically, political and economic stability. It also depends on productive agriculture, and on SA remaining competitive. This is achievable, says the report, with modern and alternative agricultural practices and systems, through the development of emerging farming and processing sectors, through improving infrastructure and access to the value chain, and through skills development and technology transfer under stable conditions.

The agricultural research community has a key role to play in contributing to sustainable resource management and food security. This will require multidisciplinary thinking and innovation.

The research council’s parliamentary grant has decreased in real terms over the past 10 years, and much funding is sourced from clients. When a client commissions research, it is rarely “public interest” research, but is rather aimed at increasing profits for particular agri-businesses.

The bulk of research projects aim at genetic improvement for crops and animals, and short-term productivity through synthetic fertilisers and agrochemicals for crops, and hormones and antibiotics for animals.

This will not solve our food security challenges. It is clear that funding for agricultural research in SA needs to be broadened to allow a focus for the public good – on improving the nutritional value of food, and in helping farmers to farm using agroecological approaches. This is as important in South Africa as it is across the continent.

The hope held out by EOA for Africa needs to be tempered with a clear understanding of what will be required. Long-term trials with ecological organic agriculture (EOA) show that EOA will produce lower yields than conventional farming unless soil and crop science assists farmers to build soil fertility. This will need a combination of soil biology (earthworms and microbes through compost), soil chemistry (rock phosphate natural fertilisers) and soil physics (minimum tillage, soil cover and crop rotation). This needs to be combined with integrated pest and disease management, seed breeding for resilience, rational veld and pasture management and strategies to increase farm biodiversity.

The assessment for mainstreaming EOA in the AU showed that most of the countries spend their agricultural budgets on farm input subsidy programmes (FISP), on average 65% of the total budget going to this. Such strategies do not equip farmers to farm more sustainably, or even more profitably. They are an inefficient waste of resources based on a short-term handout mentality.

The assessment shows that in order to address long-term sustainable production, agricultural policy must address four key issues:

  1. Practical farmer training must equip young farmers (especially female farmers, as the experience of Ghana has shown) with EOA skills, as well as strategies for adding value to their products.
  2. Laboratory services must provide farmers with low-cost soil and feed analysis, and objective recommendations (currently, most analyses are done by those selling inputs, and they will naturally advise farmers to purchase what they can supply).
  3. Government incentives should be linked to long-term sustainability indicators (at present, it is often the farmers who overstock or over-use expensive chemical inputs who benefit from drought relief or input subsidy policies).
  4. National agriculture should evaluate itself in terms of progress towards sustainability.

A five-tier typology has been developed for Africa which shows that only three countries (Tunisia, Morocco and Uganda) can be considered “advanced” EOA countries, with 13 described as “active” EOA countries. Of the 55 countries in Africa, 11 are classified “infant” regarding EOA, 12 are described as “nascent” and 16 are awaiting inspiration. South Africa is awarded three out of five points; there are organic farmers, standards and organisations, but no help from government, no policy and no budget to support agroecology.

If SA wants to achieve food and nutrition sustainability, agriculture policies will need to shift away from chemical subsidies to support partnerships, mentorship, shorter value chains, increased biodiversity and a long-term approach to soil fertility and animal nutrition. Undoubtedly, agroecology has an important role to play in this process. DM

 Professor Raymond Auerbach is a member of the boards of the SA Organic Sector Organisation and the Agricultural Research Council, but writes in his personal capacity.

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