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Load shedding threatens us with food shedding, and that means tough times ahead

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Christo van der Rheede is Chief Executive Officer of Agri SA.

The full impact of rolling blackouts on food security over the past few months is still to come, with many staples in the shops currently still being drawn from previous harvests. In short, tougher times for food security are coming.

It is beyond dispute that every sector of the South African economy has suffered from the impact of rolling blackouts. But agriculture has suffered disproportionately, with numerous commodities under severe strain.

While food security is often discussed in relation to the blackouts, the extent and severity of the challenge and its likely impact on the country are not always fully understood. Load shedding of electricity could well become load shedding of food for many people if more urgent interventions are not taken.

The statistics for jobs and economic growth for quarter four of last year have recently been released, and paint a picture of a sector dealing with immense pressures.

The agriculture sector’s growth contracted by 3.3% in the last quarter of 2022, well above the overall 1.3% reduction. In the same quarter, it shed 12,000 jobs. While the last quarter of 2022 saw significant load shedding, the first quarter of 2023 has witnessed truly unprecedented levels of blackouts, begging the question: what will the sector’s growth and employment look like for quarter one of 2023?

This question should be at the top of every person’s mind right now. Every business ought to be able to operate in an environment that enables it to prosper. Unfortunately, the South African context has drifted more towards business survival.

While every single business in South Africa is important in our context of grinding unemployment, poverty and low growth, the public and decision makers need to be cognisant that not every sector contributes to the provision of a necessity for human (and other) life in the way that the agricultural sector does with the provision of food.

It is unthinkable that the government will pass legislation that will essentially undermine the farming community’s last financial avenue to respond to rolling blackouts during an energy crisis of the state’s making.

Food is life. South Africa needs to prioritise its ability to produce food locally, being mindful that many South Africans are already food-insecure.

The success or failure of the sector not only impacts the 860,000 jobs (and therefore households) it supports, but also every single household in the country and their ability to source and buy food.

While the country can import food, those who consider this a viable option do not fully appreciate the impact that increased imports of basic and other foodstuffs would have on cost, and therefore access. Even for more financially secure households, in the context of a weakening rand driven to further depreciation through increased imports, the cost would be untenable.

While the government’s state-of-disaster regulations indicate that food production and storage infrastructure have been identified as “essential infrastructure”, there is much that remains vague. Little actual action has been taken in terms of granting exemptions or reduced schedules for the country’s farmers to date.


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Rolling blackouts have a dire financial impact on farming. For those farmers who do have the equipment and ability to implement contingencies when the lights go out (usually using generators) the cost of diesel at higher stages is crippling.

Read in Daily Maverick:Desperate farmers’ plea on Eskom blackouts: Let us feed South Africa

Without power or money for diesel, these farmers cannot irrigate crops, livestock husbandry is impossible, and crops that have made it, despite the challenges, are not getting harvested.

The full impact of rolling blackouts over the past few months on food security is still to come, with many staples in the shops currently still being drawn from previous harvests. In short, tougher times for food security are coming.

At the same time, the cost of living has already increased and is being felt by all in South Africa. Some may think that paying more for food means that farmers’ costs will be covered – this is simply not true.

Farmers do not set the price of their commodities; they are largely price takers who cannot influence the price of their produce once it leaves the farm. In a market with constricted supply, the price for the consumer will go up.

Read in Daily Maverick:Farming association warns of looming SA catastrophe as energy crisis threatens food security

But this in no way is covering the massive costs that rolling blackouts have placed on farmers and so sustainability and food security are very much in the balance despite prices going up at the till.

Unfortunately, blackouts have not been a lone factor threatening food production and therefore security in South Africa. Either flooding or drought have also had an impact on agriculture in almost every province over recent months.

The Expropriation Bill is also now making its way through the National Council of Provinces. Should the bill succeed, it will severely undermine the ability of farmers to raise loans against their property.

And this is happening at a time when our present challenges are demonstrating just how necessary this access to capital is for funding emergency operational expenditure in agriculture.

It is unthinkable that the government will pass legislation that will essentially undermine the farming community’s last financial avenue to respond to rolling blackouts during an energy crisis of the state’s making.

Food security can still be ensured, but it requires immediate action to be taken on rolling blackouts. The extension of the rebate of the Road Accident Fund levy to diesel, used by manufacturers of foodstuffs, is a good starting point.

What is needed urgently in addition to this intervention is the rapid roll-out of load curtailment (or similar interventions identified for “essential infrastructure” by the regulations) for farmers. To ensure that the deterioration of food security is halted in its tracks, implementation is now the name of the game.

Since President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced his new Cabinet, and a minister of electricity has been appointed, there is no excuse for any delay in providing clarity on the regulations and how they will be implemented in relation to agriculture. DM

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