Wandile Sihlobo: Livestock traceability - and why we should know where our food comes from

Earlier this week, I spoke at a conference about the value of traceability in monitoring livestock. 

Traceability - or the ability he ability to follow an animal during various stages of the supply chain - is key to fostering the trade of livestock and livestock products. It is important because it is a sanitary and disease management requirement in our export markets.

Since the growth of South Africa’s agricultural sector is export-led, traceability is critical in order to access export markets. And given that agriculture is central to job creation and rural economic development, export expansion is ever more important.

But in the case of livestock, the lack of a coordinated and nationally approved identification and tracking system of livestock which can be approved by our international trading partners is a hindrance.

But let me first provide a brief view of the value of the sector in question. Livestock is core subsector of South Africa’s agricultural sector, accounting for 51% of the country’s value agriculture, which was valued at R277 billion in 2018. This is the case even though livestock numbers have declined notably since the 2015/16 drought which led to increased slaughtering as farmers struggled to maintain their herds. To illustrate this point, South Africa’s cattle herd fell by 8% between 2014 and 2018 to 12.8 million. A similar decline is observable in the small stock herd – which includes sheep and goats.

Animal health is increasingly becoming a challenge as observable from frequent outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle, avian influenza in poultry, African swine fever in pigs. These diseases are costly for the country, not only because of domestic rules that get to be imposed limiting the movement of livestock to auctions but also from an export perspective. Since 2014, South Africa’s beef sector has increased its footprint in export markets. The value of exports has increased by 63% to R1.8 billion in 2018. This is a value of exports that is at risk when there is an animal disease outbreak that affects just the South African cattle industry. The numbers are much larger for sectors such as wool.

The markets that South Africa has increased its market share in over recent years are China, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Mozambique, Lesotho, Vietnam, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Hong Kong, Angola and Eswatini amongst others. There is room to grow beyond these markets. Countries such as the United States, Italy, Netherlands, Germany, Japan, France, United Kingdom, Russia, South Korea, Mexico, Spain and Malaysia are some of the geographies that continue to show an increasing trend of beef imports, which South Africa could participate in. Worth highlighting also is that the expected improvement in global economic conditions also means that the people’s buying power will improve, and thus, add to demand for high protein foods which include beef in the coming years.

But for South Africa to realize any of this potential or access to any of these markets, the country will have to put in place systems to control and monitor animal diseases. Such a system could be implemented and coordinated by a nationally and internationally approved identification and tracking system of livestock.

Moreover, export opportunities in the SADC-EPA could be released if this system is in place. Thus, supporting growth and job creation in agriculture. In closing, it is important that the South African government provide technical health services to former homelands to improve the integration of small-scale and commercial farming sectors. This would ensure that the benefits of trade and inclusive and beneficial to all farmers.

Wandile Sihlobo is a South African agricultural economist.

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