Dan Kriek: Panic buying is irrational behaviour and even more so in a food secure South Africa

Consumers stocking up on food items at a Makro store in Johannesburg. (Gallo Images, ER Lombard)
Consumers stocking up on food items at a Makro store in Johannesburg. (Gallo Images, ER Lombard)

The agricultural sector might very well emerge as a star performer to economic growth figures in what seems to be an extremely challenging year that lies ahead of us, writes Dan Kriek.

In line with what happened in the rest of the world, the rush for the grocery store started when the government declared a state of disaster to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

President Cyril Ramaphosa had barely declared the new measures, or a segment of the population resorted to an irrational spree of panic buying.

A very basic side of human behaviour came on display as the affluent in society cleared the shelves of retail stores.

Bulk buying of products that cannot realistically be consumed in the next month or two had South Africans in stitches as we resorted to humour to make light of the madness happening around us. 

Panic buying is an irrational response to a feeling of fear and despondency experienced in times of heightened uncertainty.

Many of us remember the run-up to the 1994 elections when some conservative elements in society stocked up on bully beef, baked beans and candles as they foresaw a nearing calamity in the form of an ANC government - only to become the target of ridicule to this very day.

A much more sinister reminder of empty shelves comes to mind in countries like Venezuela and Zimbabwe where failed socialist experiments caused real food shortages and severe hardship for citizens.  

The coronavirus outbreak is an unforeseen and unpredictable event and has already resulted in extreme consequences worldwide. 

Our senses are flooded with subliminal messages delivered to us by social media.

And that is exactly why we need calm, decisive leadership that follows scientific fact.

We need to support the government and each other by staying home as much as possible, washing our hands and practicing social distancing. Also critical to our combined efforts to combat the spread of the virus is correct up to date sharing of information.

Agricultural organisations are making concerted efforts to disseminate information that is easily digestible for everyone - from city dwellers to farmers and farm worker communities. 

South Africans must know that we are food secure and we will not run out of food.

We have a world class, diversified agricultural sector that exports more than what we import.

We have the best farmers in the world who manage to produce sustainably in a semi-arid country.

We have sophisticated supply chains and logistical systems to distribute food products to every corner of the country. The sector is resilient and will adapt to disruptions in supply chains that might arise in the short term.

We are export-driven and therefore compliance to international food safety protocols and standards is common practice. The fruit and red meat industries are excellent examples of this.

We are self-sufficient in nutritious fruits and vegetables at affordable prices.  

Production output in the livestock industry will regain normality after welcome rains fell in most parts of the country. We produce beef, mutton, pork and poultry at affordable prices to consumers.

The red meat industry is dealing decisively with its own "virus scare" in the form of foot and mouth disease (FMD) which could close international markets for beef and wool if not eradicated successfully.

Collaboration and communication amongst industry role players and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is crucial in protecting the sector to the benefit of all South Africans.

We will be able to keep on "braai-ing" as a national pastime.  

We have efficient grain farmers and we are expecting a near record maize harvest this season.

Surplus production means export earnings of foreign currency and will undoubtedly add to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country. The intensive industries like poultry, dairy, pork and feedlots will all benefit from lower maize prices.

Surplus production therefore "subsidises" the consumer as grain and grain derivatives make up almost 75% of a basic food parcel. Inflationary pressure on basic food stuffs should be minimal this year.

Although primary agricultural only contributes 2-3% of GDP, the total agro-industrial complex, or value chain, contributes roughly 12-15% of GDP to the economy.

The agricultural sector might very well emerge as a star performer to economic growth figures in what seems to be an extremely challenging year that lies ahead of us.

We will come to appreciate the contribution made by our farmers and farmworkers. 

While people might fear that they won’t be allowed to leave their houses to take trips to grocery stores, they shouldn’t fear a shortage of food supply.

Home delivery options will probably still be available. But for now, the bottom line is that we have more than enough to go around.  

The agricultural sector takes care of us all and must become everybody’s sector to care for, just like the coronavirus is everybody’s problem to take care of.

Inclusivity is the "vaccine" against irrationality, so think twice before you grab all the loaves of bread off the shelf.

There will be more tomorrow.    

- Dan Kriek served as president of Agri-SA until 2019. He farms with south Devon cattle in the eastern Free State. 

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