Food security

2008-05-17 00:00

Free trade was the rallying cry for 19th-century British liberalism. It brought down food prices based on agricultural monopoly and began the liberation of the working class. In the modern age of globalisation, a similar approach has been adopted: buy food on the international market at the lowest available price.

But what happens to developing countries when global supplies buckle under various strains, creating price inflation? The optimism of times of economic prosperity and growth turns to alarm about food security. Those who suffer most are the poor: they spend a greater proportion of their limited incomes on basic necessities than the rest of society.

Bread’s escalating price is used as a yardstick. So the news that domestic wheat production has fallen by 28% over the last ten years is now reason to ask where agricultural policy makers have gone wrong. One answer is that, as in other sectors of government, sustained research and development have disappeared.

A call from Grain South Africa for import tariffs has merit. But other factors have acted as a disincentive to produce wheat. This includes the collapse of the railway system, the cheapest way of moving bulk grain.

The challenge to government is to neutralise high subsidies paid to farmers in the developed world, finalise land claims issues in the interests of investment security, improve the transport system and bring down the price of diesel used in agriculture. An alternative might well be bread riots in South African cities.

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