by Loren Scholtz

On the brink of disaster

SA is on the brink of being food insecure: we need to act now

Grain SA's Jaco Minnaar urges farmers and the government to work together for the purpose of food security

Agriculture in South Africa is a sector that requires more investment and participation from both the private and public sectors if we are to ensure South Africa remains food secure.

The problem is that the price of grain is high. According to Jaco Minnaar, a Free State farmer who farms maize, soya beans, sunflowers, potatoes and cattle – and who is an executive member of the Grain SA board as a representative of the Machabeng Municipality – the price of grain is a result of what is going on in the economy.

“The markets are reflecting the state of the whole world: grains are scarce at the moment and that’s why the prices are as they are. It was a whole different story about two years ago when there was enough in the world, and the prices were entirely different – it’s just reflecting what is happening in the world.

“It’s purely economical: there are the forces of supply and demand at play, and when there’s more demand than supply, the price goes up, which equalises the whole thing again in the future, so you need these high prices in order to produce more, so that the prices come down again – it’s a whole cycle at the moment. We’re on the high end; two years back we were on the lower end,” he explains.

With South Africa’s population on the increase, supplying food to all is becoming increasingly challenging. Add to this climate change and water shortages, and the strain on the market increases.

The price of grain is much like the petrol price fluctuating, although with petrol, the market is a little more controlled than that of grain farmers. There are more small producers of grain, which means the market is much more volatile.

South Africa produces 2% to 2.5% of the world’s supply, and is one of six countries that exports its maize. “In terms of the export market, we’re a role-player, but we’re actually very small,” he explains.

Overseas farms are growing, which means being able to use better and more effective equipment, and which translates into being able to produce much cheaper. The smaller the farm, the more expensive it is to run. This begs the question: how does the rural farmer get past this?

“The biggest thing is that we must support them with support services, mentorship programmes and guidance.

"You can’t grow into a big farmer without money, so we need to start with finance so they can produce effectively for themselves and their families. And, of course, distribution of money and how it is used is a South African problem; you have to look at how you give that money to the farmer, and how you distribute it.”

“It’s in everybody’s best interest that we get as many farmers as possible. This year shows us that we’re on a knife edge – enough food or not enough food, and that’s a worldwide [problem]. We need to get more farmers to produce more and produce effectively."

There is still much scope for farmers and places to be developed in order to produce, which may be a little misleading, seeing as we import some wheat and barley.

What makes farming harder in South Africa, is that many overseas governments subsidise farmers for their produce and to export their goods. Depending on other countries for our grain adds cents on to the price of bread.

“At the end of the day, it’s about having enough for your people – and I think that’s the biggest issue, that you have to have enough in South Africa."

According to Minnaar, wheat production has halved over the last few years, and with that, loss of opportunity for employment.

“We’re producing half the wheat that we produced five years ago.

"We’re declining in wheat production rapidly, which is not the way forward. If you look at all the poultry imports into South Africa, and the number of jobs that could have been created in South Africa, the amount of maize that could have been used – it’s scary to see these things happening and nothing is being done about it.”

The future of farming is in the hands of the oppressed and those living in rural areas – whether it be as a means of righting the wrongs of the past or not, “there are not enough white farmers in South Africa to produce sustainably for South Africa; we need to get more black farmers operating at a profit and supplying other people, not just sustaining themselves, but helping to sustain the whole country. We need to get more of them and the scope is there: if you look at parts of the Eastern Cape, there is a lot of good potential land there available that one can farm on. We just need to get that much more productive.”

Grain SA welcomes the support of the South African government, and would like to form a solid partnership going forward.

However, the past and mistrust are obstacles that need to be addressed. A tough one to get around, but it is possible, Minnaar believes.


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