Addressing hunger in South Africa

A food garden that was set up by the Abalimi Bezekhaya group in Khayelitsha. (Photo: David Harrison)

A food garden that was set up by the Abalimi Bezekhaya group in Khayelitsha. (Photo: David Harrison)

South Africa is faced with a food crisis. It is not an official one — the agriculture department lists the population, on average, as having food security. But it is outside of the averages, where crop failures, increased prices and unemployment mean many people go to bed without a meal, that many South Africans are struggling to live with the daily ramifications of an unofficial national crisis.   

Official food security means South Africa produces enough food annually to feed its 53 million citizens. This is averaged out between the highest earning homes — which throw away a quarter of their food — and homes where child breadwinners rely on neighbours for food.

The last general household survey, in 2012, found that 14 million people in the country “regularly experience hunger”. These people do not know where their next meal will come from. 

A further 15 million are on the verge of hunger, and have to make do with skipping meals to get through the month on their salaries. 

Factors behind food insecurity

Last month, the Water Research Commission (WRC) said research into the causes of food insecurity had found a major reason was a lack of land for growing crops: it seems that most poor people are buying, not growing the food they are eating. At the same time, not all the available arable land is being used for crop production — especially in rural areas, it said. 

With food linked to income, the regularity of consumption fluctuated depending on salaries and pensions. The WRC found communities in the Eastern Cape where children only ate meat once a month — on the day when grants were handed out. “It is absolutely essential that poor people gain secure access to available resources and have practical skills for beneficial food production,” said the WRC.

Compounding the food security challenge is the fact that commercial farmers still produce most of the staple food consumed in the country. South Africa’s department of agriculture says these farmers produce an average of 4.4 tonnes of maize per hectare, while smallholder farmers produce just 1.1 tonnes per hectare. 

Research released last year by the University of Pretoria said South African farmers receive less financial and administrative help than farmers in any other industrialised nation. 

This means farmers are unable to compete on price with imported foodstuffs from countries that have government support systems. This gradually weakens local farming and results in farmers being less able to withstand shocks to the industry, such as drought. 

The situation is then exacerbated by uncertainties over land tenure, wage demands and lack of agricultural policies. In the past decade the number of commercial farmers has decreased by 20 000. 

There is also no legal instrument by which civil society groups can call for food security. Numerous groups have said this would allow them to challenge events that threaten food security, such as mining applications on agricultural land.  

With farmers leaving the industry, the cost of staple foods has been steadily increasing, according to the department of agriculture. Its own “Food Security” problem paper in 2011 stated: “Food insecurity is closely linked to poverty in the country. People stuck in poverty can only access food if they have money — since most urban poor do not have the land for subsistence farming — and the country’s official 25% unemployment rate means they therefore cannot afford healthy food, especially in the form of fruits and vegetables.”   

The department of health says this cheaper food leads to poor health, because it has little nutrition and instead creates obesity and other health problems. It also says that the less nutritional food means people have to eat a lot more to be full. Research by the Lancet last year found that 35% of South African men and 68% of South African women over the age of 20 were overweight. One of the main drivers of this was little access to nutritious food, it said.  

Last year, Professor Demetre Labadarios of the Human Sciences Research Council said: “One out of four households experience hunger.” The council’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that the worst affected provinces were the Eastern Cape and Limpopo. The Western Cape had the highest levels of food security, it found. 

The council also said that food security had been steadily decreasing: in 2008 48% of South Africans were classified as food secure. This number was now less than 45%, it said.  

In its latest “food security bulletin” for South Africa, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said the country was “plagued by poverty and unemployment” and this — along with inflation — had placed extreme pressure on households to make ends eat. It pointed to a further problem, where complacency with regard to food security, thanks to decades of bumper crops and no drought, had led to a lack of preventive action being taken by government. 

No national survey interrogating food security had been undertaken in the country, it said, and this was urgently required if the problem was to be understood and tackled. 

Conducting its own research, the WHO said that between 1999 and 2008, the prevalence of food insecurity had been reduced by more than half — from 52% to 26%. But it found that: “The proportion of people at risk of experiencing food insecurity remained practically unchanged.” 

The greatest advances had been in school feeding schemes, which ensured that children from poor households had access to a wider range of healthy food, the WHO said. But in general, it found that the nutritional density of the diet consumed by children was still insufficient for their mental and physical growth. “There is an alarmingly low variety of food.”

The organisation highlighted the urgent need for land access issues to be resolved. This would be the only way to decouple the link between income and access to food, it said. “The lack of access to land for the majority must be addressed through sustainable, non-income-dependent measures, such as the promotion of subsistence farming.”

In recognition of meeting its Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people suffering from hunger, South Africa was given the Food Security Recognition Award last month by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. President Jacob Zuma said at the time: “We are all very proud of this remarkable achievement … achieved through working together to promote food security.” 

Similar references were made to food security in the State of the Nation Address. But the many attempts to get a Food Security Act passed have failed.

Research published by the South African Medical Research Council earlier this year said quantifying the true health burden of food insecurity difficult. Its Food insecurity in households in informal settlements in urban South Africa report revealed that: “Food insecurity has been linked to detrimental health outcomes, such as obesity, chronic diseases and mental health disorders in adults.” 

Children were also prone to stunting and lowered mental development when they did not get enough nutrition, it said.