Food security research gets a focus and a home

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A platform has been launched for researchers to investigate ways to increase food production and improve food security in South Africa, where a quarter of the population still experiences hunger.

On Tuesday night, the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation launched the Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). It is the first centre of excellence to be hosted by a historically black university.

The centre, which will be co-hosted by UWC and the University of Pretoria, will conduct research on food creation, distribution, consumption and governance. It will start by looking at how food systems are changing and how this affects sustainability. After this it will look into policies and technological interventions that can increase access to affordable and nutritious food.

One focus area will be to look at waste during production and delivery.

The centre leaders said they hoped their findings would reduce waste and increase food production in order to deal with high food prices, especially for rural communities.

“I’ve heard of a figure around 20 percent of food wasted in the processing stage in South Africa,” said Professor Julian May, the director of the Institute for Social Development at UWC.

“The world produces around 4 500 calories [of food] per person [per day], so that’s more than enough to feed everybody. But we waste 1 900 calories,” he said. This included food that was thrown away or reached its sell-by date before it was consumed.

Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom, said Kenya had completed a study showing that just by reducing wastage it could become a food secure nation.

Hanekom said South Africa did not have a national food security problem: the big challenge was household food insecurity.

“Where there is the greatest poverty, people pay most for their food.”

He said the more food that was produced in poverty-stricken areas, the more “it would put downward pressure on prices”. While he did not think it was the entire answer, it also had “the advantage of enhanced income”.

May’s research showed 12.6 percent of the South African population did not have food security and another 8.9 percent were vulnerable.

Consumers in rural areas paid R6 more for the same food basket as those in urban areas.

Earlier this month, Statistics SA released figures that showed extreme poverty in South Africa reached 20.2 percent in 2011, while 45.5 percent experienced moderate poverty.

A majority of rural households – 55.2 percent – survived on R620 or less a month, with which they had to buy food and clothes and provide shelter.

May said that while research showed the world’s current food resources could sustain about 8 billion people, the worrying factor was that the population was expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

“We need to look at what is the price that had to be paid for the food we eat. An incredible amount of food is wasted yet we face a double burden of malnutrition,” he said.

Twenty organisations and 120 researchers would be involved in the centre.

Some of the organisations, most of which are universities, have done research on inefficiencies and wastage, the effect of food price inflation on the poor, expansion of supermarkets to rural areas and food preservation.


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