Will SA starve?

2008-06-20 00:00

IN the sixties there were dire predictions that the world would be starving by the year 2000. By 2000 the predictions had not come true and commercial farmers were faced with overproduction and low prices in most commodities. There were millions of people starving, but that was a food distribution problem not a production problem.

What now? During the past year there has been a new, desperate awareness that the world’s increasing population cannot continue to be fed from the decreasing area available for agricultural production. This situation has arisen mainly from the United States directing huge quantities of maize into fuel production and the massive increase in consumer demand in China.

Recently, Jurie Naude, a national product manager for Meadow livestock feed company gave an overview of the predictions for the future. His information was based primarily on data provided by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation. What are these figures?

In 1980, there were 3,26 hectares of land per person on our planet. By 2007, it had dropped to 2,29 hectares and in 2050 it will be 1,6 hectares. The prediction is that an equilibrium will be reached at 1,9 hectares per capita.

In 2005, the developed countries had a population of 1,3 billion and this will rise by 3,6% to 1,4 billion in 2030. Meanwhile, in the developing countries the population will increase 31,8% from 5,1 billion to 6,7 billion.

In Africa the growth rate is expected to be 66,8% from 0,8 billion to 1,4 billion. This is far higher than any other continent.

What is available to feed this increasing population? The surface area of the world is 51 billion hectares, of which 36 billion is covered with water and 15 billion is land. Of the land area, 6,4 billion hectares are unproductive, 1,4 billion hectares are cultivated, 3,4 billion hectares are veld, 3,3 billion hectares are forested and 0,2 billion hectares consist of built-up areas.

A total of 97,5% of the planet’s water is formed by oceans, while 2,5% is fresh water. This means more than one billion people have no access to drinkable water. By 2050, it is predicted that 45% of the world’s population will not have the basic need of 50 litres of fresh water a day fulfilled.

There is a constant movement of people to urban areas. By 2030, 57% of the population in developing areas will live in towns, while in the developed countries this will be 82%.

The proportion of elderly people (over 60 years old) will increase from 10% in 2005 to 22% in 2050.

The purchasing power of people is growing. However, the gross income in developed countries is 16 times higher than developing countries.

The quality of food offered to the population has improved and is still improving. In 2005, the kilocalories of energy available per person was 2 360 a day and is expected to reach 3 050 by 2030.

To summarise the world situation: in the near future there will be a larger population with less water, living more in urban areas, with a longer life span, with less soil for agriculture, with greater buying power and eating better than at present.

At some stage this relatively good scenario is going to change. Hopefully, the ability of people to manipulate their environment will push this day further ahead, just as they did in the sixties. However, suddenly, the critical situation has been recognised and is reflected in the response of major powers to the need for national food security.

Most of the major food producing countries are now controlling the export of their excess food to ensure they have enough to feed themselves. They are also protecting their vitally important commercial farmers.

Do not believe that any of the major powers like the U.S. and the European Union are going to follow their promises originally made in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), where they were prepared to reduce the subsidisation of their farmers. They are going to look after their farmers by paying them enormous subsidies to continue producing food. They are acknowledging that their commercial farmers are becoming their most valuable asset.

What about South Africa? Only 13% of the land is arable and 54% is for grazing. Remember that we are a very dry country with an average rainfall of 400 millimetres of rain versus a world average of 800 millimetres.

The majority of this cropping and grazing land was run by commercial farmers who provided the food necessary to feed the increasing urban population. That is, national food security was provided by very capable farmers.

Our government’s policy to change the ownership of a good proportion of these farms and give them to previously disadvantaged people may be politically correct, but it is a policy that will turn us into a starving country with begging bowls held out wide. May our MEC for Agriculture, Mtholophi Mthimkhulu, show the wisdom and power he has, and at least prevent our province from self destructing. Support our farmers.

• Alastair Paterson is an agricultural consultant. He can be contacted at 033 330 4817, 082 880 9002 or agpaterson@satweb.co.za

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