/ 13 August 2009

Outgrowing our food

South Africa has increased its food production by an average of 30% since 1990, but although this figure is up, it is not keeping pace with South Africa’s growing population.

Research by the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC) shows that from 1990 to 2008 field-crop production (crops such as maize and wheat) increased by 13%, horticultural production (fruit and vegetables) by 62% and livestock production (meat and chicken) by 29%, whereas overall production increased by 30% in volume.

But according to Andre Jooste, a senior manager for the market and economic research centre at NAMC, though the growth appears positive, the majority of it comes from the horticultural sector, which is relatively high-end and of which much is exported.

The ”insignificant” growth of field products, up only 13%, is of concern to food security, he says, because South Africa’s population grew about 32% between 1990 and 2008. Many of South Africa’s citizens rely on staple foods such as maize.

The slow growth can be attributed to the variability of maize production, which is affected by climate, as well as the profitability of producing the crop, says Jooste.

International markets determine South Africa’s maize prices and, depending on global supply-and-demand dynamics, these can fluctuate between import parity and export parity prices.

”Farmers are exceptionally rational beings,” says Jooste.

”If prices can help a farmer hedge against climate risk, he will plant more crops.”

But agricultural production is up despite increasing pressure on commercial farmers to remain profitable — including exposure to international markets, rising input costs such as diesel, pesticides and fertiliser, uncertainty over land reform policy and a volatile climate.

Although marginal land areas that are riskier to plant have been taken out of production, long-term average production numbers have increased, says Jooste.

Between 1970-1971 and 1996-1997, an average of 4,5-million hectares of maize was planted, yielding an average of 8,7-million tons. Between 1997-1998 and 2007-2008 an average area of 3,3-million hectares were planted, yielding an average of 9,4-million tons.

Similarly, wheat production shows stable crop yields over time despite a decline in land planted, suggesting farmers are doing more with less.

Between 1970-1971 and 1996-1997 1,7-million hectares was planted, producing an average crop of two million tons.

This average yield remained at two million tons between 1998 and 2008 despite a much smaller average of 804 000 hectares planted.

South Africa is a net exporter of agriculture and food products, or raw agricultural commodities, but a net importer of processed foods such as soyabean products, according to Jooste.

Local exports of products such as maize vary from year to year, given climatic conditions and the area planted. Nevertheless, the value of maize exports from the South African Customs Union decreased between 2005 and 2007 — going from R1645154 in 2005 to R965 083 in 2006 and R22 9713 in 2007.

Changing food consumption habits may have an effect.

A study by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) shows that although the majority of South Africans still depend on bread and cereals to survive, changing affluence in our society is altering how people spend money on food.

The BFAP is an independent research unit incorporating the University of Pretoria, the University of Stellenbosch, the Western Cape department of agriculture and the United States-based Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute.

Poorer consumers, or those who fall within the living standards measure (LSM) category 1-3, spend 29% of their food budget on bread and cereals. But high-income consumers — LSM category 7-10 — spend only 13% of their food budget on bread and cereals.

Consumers in South Africa are becoming increasingly upwardly mobile.

The report shows a 45% decline in the share of the adult population classified within LSM 1-3 between 2001 and 2008.

Meanwhile, over the same period, there was an accompanying 14% increase in the share of the adult population classified within LSM 4-6, a 40% increase in LSM 6-8 and a 36% increase in LSM 9-10.

As a result, much like consumers globally, South Africans are more interested in food purchases that are convenient, such as instant maize porridge, or indulgent, such as ice-cream, or foods deemed healthier — products fortified with vitamins or minerals, for instance.

Despite these changes, it is important to remember that the majority of South Africans still rely on staples to survive, says the BFAP’s Johann Kirsten.

The report, which uses a forward-looking model, suggests that farming profitability will remain key at least for the next two years. Real net farming income — or income after depreciation, wages, interest and rent payments — recorded a 21% increase in 2008. But this is expected to slow down by 12% in 2009 and by 10% in 2010.

Real net farming income is expected to recover by an annual average growth rate of 2,2% from 2011 until 2014.

Meanwhile, the real gross value of field crops is expected to decline by more than 20% in 2009, mainly because of the fall in commodity prices.

This on the back of a rapid increase in input costs could see further hectares of land taken out of production in 2009 and 2010, leaving just over three-million hectares of land planted for field-crop production.

But the report does indicate that from 2011 onwards the area is projected to remain relatively constant at about 4,1-million hectares.

Food price inflation finally dropped last month, falling from 12,8% in May to 9,8% in June, ­following months of low declines, despite the significant fall in commodity prices.

The anomaly has forced the Competition Commission to begin an investigation into food retail chains as well as mid-level food processors such as millers to determine whether there are anti-competitive practices along the food-processing chain.


M&G Slow