Food production and logistics were among the star performers during the Covid-19 lockdown. Despite the initial panic buying, few people can claim there were any food shortages of note.
Even during the worst of the lockdown, the supply side remained plentiful, with sufficient food available. That doesn’t mean people did not go hungry — many did, given that the primary drivers of food insecurity in South Africa are not supply, but high levels of poverty and unemployment.
In an online report, Food security and Covid-19: averting a crisis of “biblical proportions”, financial institution Investec noted: “This security of supply is a key factor in ensuring food availability, and according to Professor Julian May, director of the Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape, the country has sufficient reserves. Commercial and subsistence farmers have largely had success in bringing in harvests, with enough local crops available, such as maize, to avert a major supply crisis in the short term.
“Professor Lise Korsten, from the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Pretoria, explains that commercial farming operations were particularly resilient as lockdown restrictions went into effect.”
However, at a community level, lack of food fuelled tensions. Though ending of the level 4 lockdown from June 1 helped, the situation remains desperate concerning children, as some nine million have missed out on daily government-sponsored meals due to school closures. Most are still missing out as early childhood development centres and grades R, 3, 6, 10 and 11 pupils can only go back to school on July 6.
While food insecurity and self-reported hunger have declined in South Africa over the past 20 years, child stunting remains flat and high, despite the country’s rising GDP per capita, says May.
Successes of the lockdown
Kurt Ackermann, executive manager and co-founder of The South African Urban Food & Farming Trust, and an associate at the Global Risk Governance Programme at the University of Cape Town, explained the government and civil society response on a blog called the Duck of Minerva.
“That the President announced the distribution of 250 000 food parcels nationwide when the need is 20 times greater gives one a sense of the scale of the mismatch of resources, or capacity and need. In Cape Town alone 500 000 households need to be provisioned in a city of 4.5 million — nearly 40% of the population.
“Government has not been alone in the effort to address this crisis of hunger. The bigger NGOs that are experienced at humanitarian relief have lumbered into action and are starting to assist at an expanded scale after some weeks, also supported by donations from billionaires, wealthy corporations and others. Some ad hoc networks linking farmers, wholesale food markets and needy communities have been improvised, funded by donations.
“In Cape Town a self-organising response has become an important part of the relief effort, with ‘Community Action Networks’, or CANs, being established by ordinary residents in communities across the city, co-ordinated loosely as a grouping called Cape Town Together. An internal survey identified 170 informal feeding programmes being operated by CANs, most of which did not exist a month earlier. Donor funding, mainly small amounts from private individuals, is flowing into these networks and government funding has been put on the table as well,” says Ackermann.
The role of producers in food security
Agriculture and the entire agri-food sector was declared an essential service from the outset so as to minimise disruption in food supply, thus averting a food security disaster.
Though South Africa is thought at a national level to have sufficient food supplies, Kurt Ackermann, executive manager and co-founder of The South African Urban Food & Farming Trust, warns that the outlook for food security is broadly negative, as the economic crisis flowing from the pandemic provides farmers with little future incentive to plant or breed “during a time of financial risk and market uncertainty, resulting in future scarcity and price hikes”. He notes that supply chains remain disrupted globally and all national borders remain closed including many airports, border crossings and some ports, with no certainty as to when this situation will change.
The “we’re all in this together” camaraderie is also likely to diminish and the old institutional and political party fault lines will re-emerge to some degree. The agricultural sector was already suffering before Covid-19 due to a series of droughts, rising input costs because of the weakening rand, as well as the recessionary environment. The sector has been lagging behind the rest of the economy; it has experienced an average 1.7% long-term growth in the past 13 years compared to a 2.3% growth for the overall economy during the same period. The sector experienced a -1.3% average growth rate in the past five years. Therefore, Covid-19 will further compound the woes of the agricultural sector, through:
• Non-availability of migrant labour interrupting some harvesting activities;
• Disruptions in supply chains because of transportation problems;
• Farm gate prices have declined for fruits, vegetables and other crops, yet consumers are often paying more;
• Continued closures of large parts of the economy, such as hotels, restaurants, and other food-away-from-home outlets during the lockdown continue to depress food sales, especially for dairy farmers.
The government has been proactive in this regard, providing a stimulus package to the economy to the tune of over R500-billion to limit the damage caused by the pandemic and lockdown. It also set aside R1.2-billion in support for smallholder and communal farmers, of which R400-million is going to 146 government-leased farms within the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS).
Mary-Jane Morifi, Tiger Brands’ Chief Corporate Affairs and Sustainability Officer, answers the question of what the value chain can do to assist the challenge of food insecurity: “We should start by collaborating not just with our partners and charities, but with our competitors. Crisis moments make for unusual bedfellows, but the urgency of the present moment asks us to transcend traditional barriers such as competitive advantage, market share and media visibility. Imagine the impact that farmers, food manufacturers and retailers could make if they collaborated to reduce food wastage. A third of South Africa’s food production goes to waste, yet over 10 million people go to bed hungry each night.”
Most companies in the food chain stepped up to assist during the lockdown. Morifi says Tiger Brands’ current CSI programmes provide food to 30 000 people every day, including 4 500 university students. “Our Tiger Brands Foundation supports nearly 80 000 children with a nutritious breakfast. During Covid-19, we have kept all these programmes going. We have also made additional food hampers available to those in need, and restarted programmes like Plates4Days that traditionally only run when universities are open.”
Says group CEO of fishing company Oceana, Imraan Soomra: “I am particularly proud of how we have responded during the crisis, including providing financial assistance to frontline medical services, as well as vulnerable communities all over the country. This has included the distribution of 12 000 food parcels and 45 000 cans of Lucky Star to help feed distressed communities, including the critical small-scale fishing sector. We have also provided food parcels to thousands of employees, while a special fund has been set up to reward our staff for their commitment in ensuring an uninterrupted supply of food. In addition, Oceana has made available over 146 000 litres of water every day from our various desalination facilities and other sites to government and relief organisations to assist communities without access to clean water.”
Other companies such as AVI Group have made donations to The Solidarity Fund.