OPINION | Food security in South Africa: A new crisis in the making?

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Millet is a hardy grain that is drought-tolerant and pest-resistant.
Millet is a hardy grain that is drought-tolerant and pest-resistant.
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The year of the millet should prompt the South African government and governments around the world to reflect on their strategies and policies in terms of food security, writes Christina Teichmann.

Unnoticed by many of us, the United Nations declared 2023 as the "International Year of Millets (IYOM)". Following a proposal by India, the world's largest millet-producing country, the IYOM aims to raise awareness about millet in food security and nutrition against the backdrop of climate change; to increase global production; and to promote millet as a major component of the world's food basket, especially in developing countries with high population growth rates.

Millet, believed to have originated in the western regions of the Sahara Desert about 4 000 years ago, is an interesting grain for many reasons. It is a highly varied group of small-seeded grasses, widely grown around the world as cereal crops or grains for animal fodder and human consumption. Its nutritious value is significantly higher than many other grains.

Millet is hardy, drought-tolerant, relatively pest-resistant and can be grown in areas where other grains would fail. It has deep root systems that enable it to access water from layers underneath the ground, which other plants will not be able to tap into. All these attributes are of great advantage when taking into account the future effects of climate change and global warming on agricultural production.

Thus, even for countries that until now have never invested in the large-scale production of millet, the grain can quickly become an interesting – if not vital – alternative to other more popular grains.

READ | Food security, food prices and job losses: Why SA's energy woes are bad news for agriculture

In South Africa, pearl millet is produced in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State, mostly on a subsistence farming level. The decline in the cultivation of this ancient grain in favour of maize can be explained by various factors, such as research efforts that have made maize more productive than pearl millet grain or easier processing that has made maize more convenient to use.

Other factors include government financial incentives for farmers to produce maize rather than other crops.

While South Africa ranks 59th out of 121 countries in the recently released 2022 Global Hunger Index (GHI) and is categorised as a country with a "moderate" level of hunger, the situation might change for the worse in the future, taking environmental, economic and political pressures into account.

The right to food – as enshrined in Section 27(1)(b) of the South African Constitution – states that "everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water". Section 27(2) deals with the responsibility of the state, which "must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of these rights".

Both the National Development Plan (NDP) and the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) commit to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030. The NDP, an ambitious document that aims to guide South Africa toward a better, safer and more prosperous future for all, recognises agricultural productivity and rural development among the essential priorities for the creation of employment, economic growth, reducing poverty and addressing food security in the country.

The 55th ANC conference declaration, published on 5 January 2023, states that the government's goal to "do more to bring under-utilised land into production and enable the state to acquire agricultural land for purposes of distribution to previously disadvantaged persons." However, it offers little on exactly how the government intends to ensure that its constitutional responsibility in terms of people's right to food is met.

The recent adoption of the Expropriation Bill by the National Assembly, which provides for expropriation without compensation, poses a threat to food security as commercial farmers shy away from further investment and expansion of their business, which might otherwise have seen an increase in agricultural production, more stable prices for produce and ultimately more jobs in the agricultural sector.

In the last few months, South Africans have experienced an unprecedented inflation of food prices due to the energy crisis and other factors. Prices for food and non-alcoholic beverages advanced by 12.4% over the past 12 months. The average consumer price index (CPI) inflation for 2022 was 6.9%, higher than the 4.5% recorded in 2021.

According to Stats SA, the 2022 reading is the highest annual average rate since 2009 (7.1%) – the end of the global financial crisis – and is mainly on account of the surging prices of oils and fats (22.4%), as well as bread and cereals (20.6%). An increase in unemployment has aggravated the problem and makes it difficult for households to put food on the table.

READ | Fuel is cheaper, SA crops are in good shape – why is food so pricey?

The International Year of Millets should lead to more than just highlighting the environmental and nutritious benefits of an ancient grain that has been forgotten and needs to be rediscovered. It should prompt the South African government and governments around the world to reflect on their short- and long-term strategies and policies in terms of food security.

As of 2020, 9.3 million South Africans were affected by acute food insecurity, according to Professor Charles Shelton Mutengwa of the department of agronomy at the University of Fort Hare.

South Africa is currently facing so many acute challenges that its government might not pay enough attention to future challenges that are already in the making.

The International Year of Millets serves as a reminder that food security is an issue that must not be neglected – especially in times of environmental, economic and political pressures.

- Christina Teichmann is a board member of the FW de Klerk Foundation. News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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