Food security remains critical

The right to food is a basic international human right, and is enshrined in the South African Constitution, together with six other socioeconomic rights (the rights to basic education, housing, water, a healthy environment, healthcare and social security). While there has been progress in delivering education, housing, water, healthcare and social security in South Africa’s first two decades of democracy, food security remains a stumbling block to future development.

Food insecurity and malnutrition place strain on the economy in lost productivity, increased expenditure on health systems, and public spending on social protection. This is a major drain on both the developmental and redistributive functions of transformation in terms of lost growth potential and lost opportunities.

Food security is achieved when households are able to access (through production or purchasing) enough food to meet their daily nutritional requirements. Food insecurity results in malnutrition. Food insecurity and malnutrition are forms of deprivation; each manifests in a plethora of symptoms of varying severity. Hunger and wasting are extreme experiences of food insecurity, but food insecurity can also manifest as “hidden hunger” or less obviously observable forms of malnutrition. Malnutrition includes under-nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. It may result in being overweight or obese as a result of unbalanced intakes, particularly the consumption of too many calories without regular intake of adequate protein and micronutrients.

The causes of food insecurity and malnutrition are rooted in inter-connected economic, social, environmental and political system failures. They are both causes and consequences of poverty, inequality and unemployment. Hunger and food insecurity undermine development efforts and severely constrain human and economic potential. They trap generations in poverty. Improving the food security and nutritional status of South Africans is fundamental to achieve the three core aspirations of the National Development Plan: namely, to end poverty, inequality and unemployment. 

Malnutrition is a significant drain on individuals, households, communities and societies. Under-nutrition leads to the intergenerational perpetuation of poverty and under-development. Overweight and obesity place significant drain on health systems and predispose individuals to a wide range of health risks. Micronutrient deficiencies deprive people of productive energy and wellbeing.

Almost two in five South Africans do not have enough money to purchase adequate food and essential non-food items. Statistics South Africa’s General Household Survey reported that in 2014, 5.9% of South African households faced serious problems finding enough to eat, while 16.6 % struggled to find enough to eat every day, and 13.1% households reportedly experienced hunger. More than two in five children under five years of age show signs of chronic under-nourishment. Despite the efforts made to reduce poverty and hunger in the country since 1994, the average nutritional status of children is deteriorating.

Social grants, an essential part of the transformation agenda of the country, keep 16 million people (11.3 million children) from starvation, but at high cost to the state (approximately R12-billion in 2014). These grants support improved access to food for many households and have a significant mitigating impact on poverty, but they are not enough to allow households to escape poverty or afford an adequate diet.

While social grants are one of the key elements of the country’s development and redistribution policy, they are not enough to ensure access to nutritious diets. Eliminating food insecurity and malnutrition demands ensuring that everyone has sufficient income to pay for basic living costs and to afford an adequate and balanced diet. While social protection is an important tool for addressing poverty, inequality and unemployment, sustainable livelihoods and decent work are the best ways to achieve sustainable food security.

The state is currently funding multiple overlapping and duplicative programmes to address food insecurity in many different departments. An assessment of the effectiveness of this spending is vital to improve the design and delivery of public food security programmes.

The amount of public spending on food security programmes is significant. Strong leadership, co-ordination and accountability will be essential for improving the design and implementation of food security and nutrition policies, and of programmes to ensure economic growth, developmental momentum, and to meet international obligations regarding the progressive realisation of the right to food.

Professor Sheryl Hendriks is the co-director: DST/NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, University of Pretoria, and director: Institute for Food, Nutrition and Wellbeing, University of Pretoria