Spreading the load

To achieve food security, the agricultural risk model must be re-examined

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In South Africa a plate of food is a given to many, but high unemployment and poverty rates mean that for some, it is a luxury they don’t receive each day. South Africa’s economy is not what it should or could be: reasons include uncertainty around policy, immigrants putting pressure on resources and the job market, and the sense of entitlement so rife in the country.

We constantly hear that we should empower people, but no-one can be empowered sustainably: true empowerment comes from within.

The key to empowerment is that government should create an environment and climate where it is possible to “sell” my labour needs and where entrepreneurs want to invest and do business.

A business must grow to be sustainable. This only happens when the proverbial economic cake gets bigger.

We need healthy economic growth, but government policy is unsustainable. With more than 55 million people in the country, but only five million registered to pay tax of which only three million actually do pay their dues and 17 million receiving some form of social grant, government should seriously consider how this model will be sustained.

Food security starts with the farmer, producing the food that enters the market. Arguably, we can import food, but with our tax base being what it is, that is a short-sighted solution.

Farmers are often not given enough credit for their contribution to rural stability by creating job opportunities.

Maybe we should differentiate between a farmer and someone who lives on productive agricultural land but depends on a social grant because their agricultural income is insufficient to make a living.

A farmer should simply be defined as someone producing food to be sold at market for a profit, sustainably.

Farmers normally speak about the future from a specific religious conviction realising that we receive our life task from the Word of God, which gives us a certain responsibility to fulfil. We know that God is in control, and the Word shows us that He uses people to fulfil His desire. Think of David, Joseph, Gideon and Daniel. They had to act under the instruction of God.

This shows how we must believe and pray but also work to create a future. Otherwise tomorrow will be just the same as today.

Severe climate challenges over the past few years over which farmers had no control have put many in dire circumstances, endangering their economic sustainability. A farmer cannot carry the financial burden of the production cycle in a three-year period of drought and no crop yields during which inputs costs keep accumulating.

Shouldn’t we have started looking at the production process from a different angle, a long time ago?

Primary producers in various commodities and regions have their backs against the wall.

The farmer is the epicentre of profitability: the entire agricultural cycle—from the first input supplier, past processors leading to the consumer—depends on the farmer’s production.

Every link in the food chain should be asking what their future will look like when we lose productive farmers and their land.

At present, farmers carry the main risk. For example, the farmer offers up his land to the bank as collateral for input costs like seed, fertiliser, diesel and chemical products. The institutions get their money and profit, but when the farmer has no crops for whatever reason, the debt—and the risk—stays his responsibility.

It is time to start thinking outside the box and view the risk from a different angle. We must create models that divide uncertainty more equally among all role-players, to protect the primary producer as the centre of the agricultural chain.

At TAU SA, we have started ongoing conversations with many key role-players in order to pool knowledge and create solutions in the best interests of all. The main dilemma is that we are working in silos apart from each other. Everyone wants to push their own agenda. New schools of thought are needed if we want to ensure that everyone in South Africa — internationally seen as a marginal agricultural country – has food on the table.

Producers must rethink their own positions too. Twelve years we suggested syndication: when ten farmers, for example, pool their capacity into a business entity like a cooperative, the mutual benefits are legion. Think equipment, safety and stability.

In some cases, farmers have applied this model and become part of a mega farm instead of becoming a mega farmer. Greater torque when buying and better market development are just a few aspects coming into play.

Soon it will be necessary to pool consumers’ knowledge and capacity, too.

We need a conference on this topic and we are working on giving it life very soon.

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