The past, present and future of food production in South Africa

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Archaeological deposits along the west coast indicate the existence of domestic animals, mostly sheep. Olfert Dapper, a traveller to the early Cape, wrote in 1668 that the Kochoquas (also called Saldanhars) owned “a large collection of cattle, well over a hundred thousand in number, and about two hundred thousand sheep, which instead of wool have longish coloured hair on the body”.

Ownership of cattle by the indigenous people laid the foundation for active trade for fresh meat between them and the many ships passing the Cape en route to East Asia to collect spices. In 1649 the Dutch East India Company (VOC) proposed the establishment of a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope to produce fresh fruit and vegetables. Jan van Riebeeck was charged with establishing this refreshment station.
As a result, commercial food production as we know it today in South Africa gained incredible momentum. With the arrival of more and more European settlers, more and more farms were made available to practice wine, fruit, vegetable, and livestock farming on a commercial scale. This growth went hand in hand with increased slave labour and the dispossession of land on which the indigenous people of the Cape farmed livestock; this legacy still haunts South Africa, and the country continuously seeks just and economically viable restoration.

But today, the world of agriculture stands in great contrast to those early days of South African agriculture during the late 17th century. The population is estimated at 60,7 million and will reach 65,2 million in 2026. With this in mind, commercial food production is of national importance.

In 2020/2021 the value of agricultural production in South Africa increased by 11,6%. It was estimated at R346 035 million, compared to R310 179 million in 2019/20, in part due to the increase in values of field crops (23,9%), horticultural products (8,0%), and animal products (7,2%).

The South African primary agricultural sector grew by an average of 6,1% per year since 2011, while the contribution of agriculture’s value-added to gross domestic product (GDP) increased from 2,2% in 2011 to 2,3% in 2020.
The field crop production volume for 2020/21 increased by 11,7%, mainly because of increases in the production of summer crops (maize and sorghum), winter crops (wheat, barley, canola, and oats), and oilseed crops (soya bean and groundnuts). Horticultural production for 2020/21 increased by 2,4% from the previous season. Higher deciduous and citrus fruit production led to this increase.

Increases in the production of stock slaughtered (cattle and calves, pork, and goats) and poultry meat for 2020/21 (as compared to 2019/20) brought about an increase of 0,7% in animal production. The production of stock slaughtered for cattle and calves increased by 18 606 tons (2,2%), pork by 15 844 tons (5,7%) and goats by 23 tons (1,6%) as compared to 2019/20. Furthermore, poultry meat production increased by 38 043 tons (2,1%) since the previous season.

Despite its relatively small share of the total GDP, primary agriculture is an important sector in the South African economy. Agriculture remains a significant source of employment, especially in rural areas. The industry is also a major earner of foreign exchange. Agriculture’s prominent, indirect role in the economy is a function of backward and forward linkages to other sectors.

Purchases of goods such as chemicals, fertilizer and implements form backward linkages with the manufacturing sector while supplying raw materials to the manufacturing industry establishes forward links. Intermediate products in the sector make out about 70% of agricultural output, making agriculture crucial, an engine of growth for the rest of the economy.

   African Union urges farmers to boost food production

Farmers do play a critical role in this regard. Yet, agricultural structures such as Agri SA are of greater importance. Agri SA was instrumental in lobbying for the advancement and protection of their interests, creating greater awareness of the critical role farmers play in society.

Often, the assumption is that agriculture is an easy industry, but practising agriculture in South Africa is no child’s play. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, U.S. president from 1953 to 1961, captures it perfectly in the following quotation: “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”

In an industry fraught with risks, policymakers often make decisions based on politics rather than economic and social considerations.
In this regard, Agri SA seeks continuous and constructive engagement with political office bearers to make them aware of these risks, spurring government departments or state-owned enterprises to collaborate with the industry and mitigate risks.
Whilst the farmers’ cash flow increased significantly by 45,6% to approximately R157 260 million for the year ended June 2021 (compared to R107 984 million in the previous period), farmers continuously experience natural extremities like droughts, floods, fires, and other natural disasters. Outbreaks of certain conditions add to the load, for instance, foot and mouth disease in cattle, African swine fever amongst pigs, avian influenza in poultry and fall armyworm in maize.

Hence, under no circumstances can we allow the inaction by national institutions such as the agricultural research council or Onderstepoort biological products to compromise our national livestock herds or grain stocks. In this regard, the collaboration between the national animal health forum, minister of agriculture Thoko Didiza, and the institutions responsible for livestock and plant health, plays a critical role in ensuring that all stakeholders do their part to safeguard food production.
Agricultural produce in South Africa is compromised when negligence, non-compliance to food health and safety standards, ill-conceived policies such as expropriation of land without compensation, and social unrest occur. Circumstances like these result in large-scale disinvestment of capital and expertise. It compromises food availability, affordability, and quality. The true challenge to a country is not a loss of land but losing expertise, as it is not the land that produces food - it is the expertise.
South Africa needs to tread carefully in this respect as we also face a growing trend where experts no longer regard farming as a lucrative business.

A recent study by the bureau for food and agricultural policy (BFAP) indicated that 1 out of 5 South African farmers wants to leave farming in the next decade. Some of the reasons for this relate to age, lack of a successor, lack of reliable labour, uncertainty about land reform policy, and lack of rural safety.

Yet, the overriding factor was the precarious financial situation in which many found themselves. Due to a financially limiting position and lack of business confidence, farmers aimed to cut costs and reduce farming activities rather than expanding them. Rising input cost, such as the price of fertilizer, herbicides, seed, labour, fuel, and electricity, poses a risk to farmers’ financial sustainability. It spills over to the local economy, the number of people employed, food production for local and international markets, and the profitability of farms.

The latest figures by the department of agriculture indicate that at the end of December 2021, the agricultural debt had grown by 7,5% to R204,8 billion rand. Now it is equal to approximately 35% of agricultural assets. The statistic is much more than the 12 to 14% recorded in America and Australia. Gross income in agriculture for 2021 grew by 11,5% to R368 billion, but at the same time, intermediary inputs (diesel, fertilizer, feed, seed, etc.) increased by 7,1% to R202 billion.

These figures depict farming as challenging, proving that only the most resilient and business-savvy agricultural entities and farmers eventually make a success. It is especially true in a country where support for commercial farming decreased during reforms in the mid-1990s, especially considering that support for farms has remained below 5% of gross farm receipts since 2010. Most policy measures and direct payments continue to target the smallholder sub-sector.
South Africa, therefore, needs to show greater appreciation for the resilience of commercial farmers. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia once again proves the resilience of South African farmers. These regions were to import 11 million cartons of citrus and 5,5 million pears and prunes cartons. Whilst there was a big concern about access to these markets, the boats arrived at Durban harbour.
Renowned American statesman Thomas Jefferson reminds us: “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.”

Establishing a cohort of future commercial farmers will depend on whether we value them as a society.
It is important that greater inclusivity be created in the future by growing the number of black commercial farmers. An economically viable and sustainable land reform process will also play an incremental part. The department of agriculture, land reform and rural development is the custodian of 10 454 652 ha of land and must ensure that this land is made available to people with an appetite and aptitude for commercial farming.
Currently, a total of 1 289 583 ha is subject to long-term agricultural leases. During the past five years, only 8 173 ha was transferred to individuals and businesses, while communities received 104 850 ha. Why so little state-acquired land is translated into full ownership or long-term leases cannot go unchallenged because it undermines the productive use of such land.

A former president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo stated the following: “Agrarian reform should not merely subdivide misery, it must raise living standards. Ownership raises the farmer from his feet, but productivity will keep him on his feet.”

Agri SA agrees with this statement.
Commercial agriculture started more than 300 years ago when it supplied passing ships with fresh food supplies. The industry has since developed into a highly technological and scientific business that provides food to South Africa as well as the rest of the world. We cannot turn back time.
For South Africa to continue feeding its growing population, food production must increase on the back of affordable financing, continuous scientific and technological development, and a free market system. For this to happen, the industry must secure long-term use and ownership of land. Equally important, however, is creating a conducive political, economic, and social environment in which farmers and food production can flourish. Food security depends on it!

Christo van de Rheede