As increases in public transport costs and electricity prices, coupled with alarmingly higher food prices take their toll on households and the plates of families, it is clear that food prices must fall. We need to reject that in a country that can feed everyone, but doesn’t, millions go hungry. Affordability plays a major part in this hunger as it creates barriers to accessing nutritious foods for the majority of people in the country.
The food industry, which includes the major supermarkets and big businesses that process and package foods, plays a key role in sustaining hunger by influencing food availability and pricing. This is described by Dr Tracy Ledger, author of An Empty Plate: Why we are losing the battle for our food system, why it matters, and how we can win it back, as vested interests determining “the income of farm workers, the price, the quality, and the source of food on your shelves”.
One example of how this works is the huge difference between what supermarkets charge consumers and how much they pay producers, especially for products that don’t need to be processed, like fruit, vegetables, eggs and whole chickens.
This has made many foods, particularly nutritious food, too expensive for the many people living in poverty in the country. In 2021, the supermarket price of a dozen eggs was about R35, but if purchased directly from the farmer it would cost around R17 per dozen, according to the findings of the South African Poultry Association’s Subsistence and Small Commercial Farmer Report. The Competition Commission has also expressed concern over the wide farm-to-retail spread in prices.
Price gouging, excessive and unfair price increases that are not justified by a rise in the cost of providing the goods, and the price-fixing of essential items such as bread are a few more examples. As the country prepared to go under lockdown in March 2020, businesses used it as an opportunity to cash in on the crisis by hiking the prices of essential goods — including food.
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Food Lovers Market admitted to charging excessively for ginger and Pick n Pay entered into an agreement to cap its profit margin on garlic and ginger, following an investigation into price gouging. More recently, the Competition Commission has expressed concern about the steep increases in prices of staple foods, like sunflower oil and maize meal, which may be at risk of price gouging.
As people like Ledger and organisations like the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group have warned, South Africa’s food system is broken. Here’s what we should be demanding as the first steps to fixing it.
Firstly, the Marketing of Agricultural Products Act No 47 of 1996, which liberalised the food market, must be amended to enable the government to regulate food prices to promote food security. In its current form, it essentially leaves it to the market to regulate itself resulting in a private-sector governed food system which has had negative outcomes for consumers, smaller farmers and farm workers.
We also need to demand that supermarkets and big food businesses provide data and information about their pricing throughout the supply chain, including how much is paid to producers. This will enable regulators and others to monitor prices more effectively.
The need for this is evidenced by concerns that while the cost of buying bread from wholesalers went down for supermarkets in 2019, they kept the price the same for the consumer. Even right now, food prices continue to soar, despite the decrease in fuel prices and global food commodity prices.
Increase fines for businesses that profiteer and do more to protect consumers. The Presidency must take urgent action to reduce the high cost of living by working with relevant bodies, such as the Department of Trade and Industry, to strengthen the powers and mandate of the Competition Commission, Competition Tribunal and other public institutions that can help protect consumers.
To be sure, South Africa’s hunger and nutrition crisis is not new. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, around 27% of children under five years old were not growing as they should due to chronic undernourishment. But it is getting worse. The current alarming increases in basic food prices, coupled with high unemployment levels, low wages, inconsistent and unaffordable electricity supply and inadequate support for unemployed people, signals that turning the tide is even more urgent.
While dignity is inherent to all human beings, it needs to be affirmed in the quality of life people lead. Ensuring that food is accessible and affordable to everyone is an essential part of doing so. DM