Access to food

2007-11-20 00:00

THE success of a democracy can be measured in many ways: economic growth, freedom of expression, voting rights ... the list is long and various. But what about access to food? In South Africa, the reality is that millions of people live below the poverty line and struggle every day to put food on the table, let alone ensure that their diets and those of their family members are well-balanced and nutritious. How South Africa manages this reality must surely rank as a primary indicator of its democratic competence.

It's a cruel but well-known irony that poor people spend a greater proportion of their total income on food than rich people. Thus, when food prices go up, the poor suffer most.

It is this vulnerability which renders the recently-highlighted price-fixing by South African cartels in the bread and milling industry all the more deplorable. Over time, bread has come to be seen, rightly or wrongly, as a staple food for lower income families the world over - a prevalence evident in the use of expressions such as “living below the bread line” and “putting bread on the table”. That the price of this basic commodity should be artificially inflated by a group of profiteering companies points graphically to the dangers of untrammelled capitalism and corporate control over access to food.

South Africa's challenge to feed its people is now part of a global struggle, as highlighted by comments made at the weekend by Finance Minister Trevor Manuel at the G-20 meeting regarding the impact of climate change on crops, particularly that of wheat and corn, both of which are considered staple foods around the world.

Drastic action is needed, which may involve a review of the kinds of crops produced in certain parts of the world, crops which may not be intrinsically suited to the local climate. What does seem clear, however, is that governments cannot get away with sitting back and letting the “free” market go about its business unchecked.

Government is responsible for securing conditions for economic growth, but this responsibility cannot outweigh the duty to ensure that food is consistently available to those for whom the vagaries of the world food markets have become a matter of life and death.

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