Food security challenges

DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security launch at the University of the Western Cape. (Supplied)

DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security launch at the University of the Western Cape. (Supplied)


 April 15, then-minister of science and technology Derek Hanekom launched the Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). This is the first previously disadvantaged university to host a CoE. 

The university will co-host the CoE with the University of Pretoria (UP), which already hosts the DST-NRF CoE in Tree Health Biotechnology. 

Rector and vice-chancellor of the UWC Professor Brian O’Connell said that the university was honoured to host the CoE. 

“The university can be seen as a metaphor for Africa: we have accomplished great things at this institution and on this continent. I look forward to the coming engagement with the University of Pretoria, and I believe that the two institutions will together create magic.” 

Food security has been defined as access by all people, at all times, to enough food for an active and healthy life. According to a study released in 2013 by the Human Sciences Research Council, more than half of South Africa’s population does not have regular access to enough food. Studies show that in South Africa, where more than 60% of the population is urbanised and food insecurity is widespread, approximately 45% of people live below the poverty line.

Professor Julian May, the CoE director, during his launch presentation titled “Can science and good governance deliver dinner?”, emphasised the importance of food security. 

“In South Africa, more than 20% of people are food insecure and this must change drastically. We will make a difference to food security by linking innovative science to critical enquiry,” he said.

In the next 40 years, we will need to produce more food than we have produced over the last 8000 years. Future challenges coupled with greater climatic variability, increased demand for animal protein, increased cost of energy and the decrease in the availability of water will play an immense role in how we feed ourselves in the future. 

Will we succeed if good science is supported by good governance and policy is evidence-based? Food security is not having a freezer filled with our favourite goodies at home, but it exists when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. 

Key activities

The CoE in Food Security will address a number of activities with its institutional collaborators. The goal of food creation will be led by UP’s John Taylor and his students, who have already developed a nutritious sorghum biscuit – two biscuits a day can supply up to 20% more energy for young children of school going age. The University of Fort Hare’s Voster Muchenje and his colleagues will tackle the “farm to fork” approach to meat science and Kennedy Dzama and colleagues at the University of Stellenbosch will exploit genetic resources of indigenous cattle for commercialisation. 

Food distribution activity studies will be undertaken by the team from AFSUN Cape Town at the African Centre for Cities and the University of Western Cape. Consumption activity studies on rural and urban sites will be undertaken by the University of Western Cape and North-West University. Studies on food security and governance will be undertaken by the co-host institution, the University of Pretoria.

Why does food security matter? In 2007 a study was conducted on the brains of two three-year-old children. One was a normal three-year-old and the other a malnourished three-year-old. The brain scan of the normal health three-year-old appeared big and far more developed than that of the malnourished three-year-old child. 

From this study we see the effects of malnutrition and why food security matters and should be a concern for government and policy makers. This affects human development and wellbeing though out the lifespan of the human. Food insecurity means that rural consumers and households pay more than their urban counterparts for the same food basket and healthier food becomes increasingly expensive and scarce.

The contents of this supplement were supplied and signed off by the National Research Foundation.