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Poor soil management, over-fertilising and overall poor farm management. These are some of the unsustainable farming practices responsible for decreased crop yields – and increased prices for basic foods.
While South Africa manages to produce enough food to feed its people, high prices are making life difficult for many poorer people.
Tracy van der Heijden, a doctoral research fellow at the Public Affairs Research Institute, said in the most recent issue of Environment magazine that the problem was exacerbated by the movement of people from rural to urban areas, meaning that fewer skilled subsistence farmers were left in rural areas.
The New York Times reported in June that the consumption of the four staples that supply most human calories – wheat, rice, corn and soybeans – had outstripped production for much of the past decade, drawing once-large stockpiles down to worrisome levels.
“The imbalance between supply and demand has resulted in two huge spikes in international grain prices since 2007, with some grains more than doubling in cost.”
Those price jumps, it reported, though felt only moderately in the West, have worsened hunger for tens of millions of poor people, destabilising politics in countries like Mexico, Uzbekistan and Yemen.
“Now, the latest scientific research suggests that a previously discounted factor is helping to destabilise the food system: climate change. Many of the failed harvests of the past decade were a consequence of weather disasters, like floods in the US, drought in Australia and blistering heat waves in Europe and Russia.”
What is clear from the incidents, that are spread all over the world, is that the world is facing a crisis which has been worsened by many varying factors, compounded by worsening environmental conditions.
Frank Winder, managing director of Advanced Nutrients – a supplier of soil fertility products – said that the maize price had been fluctuating over the last decade and had very rarely steadied for long periods due to various supply and demand factors – weather patterns all over the world also contributed to this. “The more demand for commodities such as maize, the more the prices are set to increase.”
Dawie Maree, a senior economist at farming body AgriSA, said the biggest challenges facing farmers in terms of improving food production, without compromising on farming practices that had minimal long-term impact, included input costs, land reform, water quality, climate conditions and the high cost of agriculture investment.
Maree added that while demand did not necessarily increase when production was low, prices over the past year had risen at an average of 12.77 percent per year.
“Maize and maize products are staples in households across the world, and as families grow, the demand for maize does the same. This goes further in the form of feed. Maize is a significant animal feed and as consumption of animal products increases, so, too, does the demand for maize,” said Winder.
Maree said: “Given increasing populations, demand will increase. If supply stays constant, prices will increase. Since a number of local commodity prices are derived from international prices, it will result in increases in local prices as well.”
Maree said that the prices of all grain products, especially wheat and soybeans, could also be affected.
“Imports and exports are more demand- and price-driven. However, if unsustainable practises lead to lower supply, it will mean that more imports are needed to fulfil the demand from consumers.”
The cost of 2.5 kg of maize in 2002 was R5.93, and currently it sits at R17.49, indicating a total increase of 195 percent, said Winder.
“This indicates that not only is the global population growth impacting on price, but the expanding emergence of developed countries and citizens, now requiring and able to afford more, is too. The question then is not simply at what rate the population is growing, but also at what rate that growth, as well as the existing population, is being converted into buying consumers.”
He said projecting these same figures to around 2025, when the population would be breaching eight billion, could mean a price of well over R60 a bag, compared to the inflationary calculated price of R36.
“A human factor that affects farming is change, which is necessary if one needs to make a paradigm shift. Many farmers are reluctant to change,” said Winder.
“Farmers should be given the opportunity to attend programmes that create awareness on how agricultural practices can affect their bottom line, and also guarantee food security,” said Winder.
Maree said that there was no one set of guidelines, since the industry was so diverse; the onus was usually on farmers to make their operations more sustainable.
“Some commodity organisations, however, have provided their members with guidelines e.g. the Milk Producers’ Organisation (MPO) published ‘Good Dairy Farm Guidelines’ some years ago.”
Selby Bokaba, of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said unsustainable farming practices compromised the availability of the agricultural production resources, which implied that farmers had to incur higher production costs in order to produce more, or use the same compromised resources to produce less.
“High production costs put profitability under pressure, which could result in lower supply. Lower supply and less produce means higher food prices. All food items are affected.”
Vaughan Koopman, a wetland socio-ecologist for the Mondi Wetlands Programme and Masters scholar at UKZN, also grappled with the issue in a feature he penned for the latest issue of Environment magazine.
He said that for the past 10 000 years the planet’s environment had experienced relatively little change.
“This period of relative stability has allowed us to feed and clothe ourselves, fuel our technology and provide water for our cities and crops. This has come (at significant expense). Human activities are now fundamentally changing the way our ecosystems… function.”
He said that according to the latest Environmental Performance Index released by Yale University this year, SA was ranked among the weakest performing countries over the past 20 years.
“The Index ranks SA in 128th position, four places ahead of Iraq, which is last on the list.”
He names the Bonsucro Better Sugarcane Initiative Sustainability Production Standards as an example of how sustainably sourced goods, with support from large companies, can help alleviate the problem.
“Bonsucro is a global, multi-stakeholder, non-profit initiative made up of sugar producers and buyers such as The Coca-Cola Company, Kraft Foods and Unilever, who have committed to sourcing their sugar from certified suppliers.”
Coca-Cola, the world’s largest beverage company, he said, was encouraging more sustainable practices throughout their global supply chain.