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Biodiversity is crucial for South Africa’s food security

COMMENT

 The Covid-19 pandemic is teaching us all some very important lessons. In particular, it is reminding us that our health, our economy and our way of life are built on a fragile foundation that is far too often taken for granted. 

The South African economy has been on a downward spiral for a number of years and this has now been exacerbated by Covid-19, with the gross domestic product (GDP) contracting by 16% quarter on quarter. Fortunately for South Africans, our farmers and frontline workers have been able to persevere through this short-term crisis. According to Statistics South Africa, the agricultural sector experienced positive growth in the first and second quarters of 2020, expanding by almost 28% in the first quarter and 15.1% in the second quarter.

But our South African food supply is not nearly as secure as you may think.  South Africa faces an impending food security crisis, with the demographic challenge alone being incredibly daunting. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, South Africa will have to produce 50% more food by 2050 to feed an estimated population of 73-million people. 

However, as South Africa has limited fertile land, crop farmers need to increase the fertility of their soils to achieve good yields. What’s more, more than five million hectares of cultivated land has already been seriously acidified in the country and an estimated 260 000ha of irrigated land is affected by salinisation. 

With increased pressure on our precious soil and biodiversity, farming needs to change drastically to meet the needs of the growing population. This is even more vital because South Africa ranks as the third most-biodiverse country in the world and is recognised for having a high level of endemism — it is home to more than 95 000 known native species. But our biodiversity has been under threat for a number of years.

Agriculture is the largest contributor to biodiversity loss, at 50%, because of changing consumption patterns and growing populations. That said, biodiversity loss, together with climate change, put immense pressure on farmers, with yields expected to decrease in the future under these extreme conditions. As such, we need to confront the reality that the future of our food supply is fragile.

The good news is that we have an improved understanding of what it will take to safeguard our food supply and ensure food security in South Africa. It will require a combination of reducing food waste, embracing technological innovation in agriculture, and a commitment to sustainable and regenerative farming practices, while improving yields and farmers’ livelihoods.

Companies such as McCain have a special responsibility to embrace this sustainability challenge. It starts with putting an end to endemic food waste. The numbers are staggering, with an average of 210kg of food being wasted per person each year in South Africa. Of this, 44% of waste comprises fruit and vegetables, with a majority wasted before reaching the supermarket shelves. The agriculture industry is a major contributing factor to food wastage in the value chain, accounting for 50% of the waste produced. This is followed by processing and packaging (25%), distribution and retail (20%), and 5% at a consumer level.

According to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, food waste costs South Africa R61.5-billion, or 2.1% of GDP. It is morally not acceptable to allow this systemic waste to continue while so many South Africans go hungry. 

The solution to food waste is multi-faceted: it includes reducing waste on the farm and in storage, embracing new production methods, and reducing food losses in retail, in food service and at home. It requires a broad-based collaboration among all actors in the food value chain. And, in South Africa, we can still do much more.

 works with its growers to reduce waste at farm level by encouraging good agricultural practices before and during harvest, and by supporting good storage management. The company also encourages whole-crop contracting, which means that it buys all potatoes from growers to reduce the number of potatoes left in the field. Through increased efficiency and product innovation, it is able to use more than 98.5% of the potatoes it processes. 

Technology is a crucial part of the solution. Agriculture has always been a beneficiary of technological change. For years, we have been promoting the adoption of better agricultural techniques. This includes transferring technologies to growers, such as integrated pest management, decision support systems for disease management, soil management, seed cutters, storage practices and many more. 

Finally, it is essential that farming practices transform towards sustainable, regenerative agriculture practices that protect soils and groundwater and restore biodiversity.

In South Africa, this has already started to happen, with the maintenance of yield quality and quantity largely being achieved through the change in water, fertiliser management and crop rotation, which is beneficial from a soil health perspective. Rotation is needed to prevent the build-up of soil-borne pests and diseases and protect yield. That said, rejuvenating soil and finding ways to grow with fewer emissions will require a more radical transformation in farming practices in South Africa, and at a global scale.

To further this commitment towards regenerative agriculture and biodiversity, McCain is a founding member of the One Planet Business for Biodiversity coalition. This business-led coalition aims to gather forward-thinking, agriculture-centric companies determined to scale up regenerative agriculture practices and protect biodiversity within their value chains.

Governments, families and businesses are showing a united resolve in facing the pandemic. We must all show the same resolve in protecting our food security and in transitioning to a truly sustainable food system. It will take meaningful support by food companies, retailers, food-service players and governments to support the farmers who are at the forefront of the transition to a sustainable agriculture. All of our futures depend on it.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Isak B Oosthuizen
Isak B Oosthuizen is the agriculture director at McCain South Africa

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