Avian flu adds to dire spectre of household hunger threatening millions in SA

Empty egg shelves in a Woolworths. The country is facing an egg shortage due to an avian flu outbreak. Picture: Jacques Naude / African News Agency (ANA)

Empty egg shelves in a Woolworths. The country is facing an egg shortage due to an avian flu outbreak. Picture: Jacques Naude / African News Agency (ANA)

Published Oct 22, 2023


South Africa has a robust agriculture sector, but the horrifying picture that emerged this week is that millions of South Africans face hunger as households struggle to feed their families amid a cost-of-living crisis, but a shortage of eggs, due to avian influenza, could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

For the poorest 60% of South African households, the annual rise in living costs supersedes headline inflation. With already half of their income earmarked for food, these households are exceptionally vulnerable to inflationary pressures.

Statistics SA also released the results of its Census 2022 this month, showing that the population of South Africa increased from 51.7 million in 2011 to more than 62 million in 2022. And while the population had ballooned, South Africa’s unemployment rate came in at 32.6% in the second quarter of 2023.

Food insecure

According to research commissioned by the Shoprite Group, released this week, by 2025 nearly half of South Africa’s population will be food insecure.

The retail giant said that by 2025, 48.96% of the South African population may not have enough food to eat.

“To deal with the problem, we need to better understand it, and the Food Index provides us with some insight. Although the modelling shows an improvement by 2025, the reality is that in two years’ time, just under half the population will still be struggling with hunger. That’s why we must urgently escalate the rate at which people escape food insecurity. Doing so will improve not only their prospects, but that of the country,” said Sanjeev Raghubir, the head of sustainability and CSI at the Shoprite Group.

Children without enough to eat are most at risk of malnutrition.

And according to Health Minister Joe Phaahla, the rate of severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in children under the age of 5 in South Africa has risen 26% in the past five years.

A recent study undertaken by the University of the Witwatersrand found that South Africa has persistently high rates of hunger and malnutrition among children, resulting in more than a quarter – 27% – of children under 5 being stunted and 61% of children suffering from iron deficiency.

Avian flu making bad situation worse

According to the government and national poultry association, South Africa has culled approximately 7.5 million chickens thus far in an effort to contain dozens of outbreaks of two separate strains of avian influenza in recent months, that threaten to create a shortage of eggs and poultry for consumers.

Wilhelm Mare, the chairperson of the poultry group in the South African Veterinary Association, said as many as 8.5 million egg-laying chickens could be affected and more than 10 million birds overall.

Local supermarket shelves are often empty of eggs as a result, and if eggs are available the sale is restricted to a tray per person, but the cost has also risen, putting this food source out of the reach of many.

“By far the most dire consequence is the potentially horrifying impact it will have on the health of children in the form of malnutrition, especially as eggs and chicken are regarded among the most nourishing foods on the planet, and count among the most affordable forms of protein,” warned CEO of Debt Rescue, Neil Roets.

Eggs are protein- and nutrient-dense, with one large egg contains 13 essential vitamins along with 7g of protein, making it a valuable and cost-effective dietary addition.

According to Debt Rescue’s Roets, the statistics are a call to action.

“This is the real threat to the nation as it braces for the impact posed by the avian influenza outbreak, and it goes far beyond the general food supply crisis that is evolving as a result of shortages in our supermarkets,” said Roets.

“The far-reaching effect of this on the most vulnerable in our society does not bear thinking of – especially the millions of children who already suffer from malnutrition,” he warned.

“Over the past month, the average cost to feed a child a basic nutritious diet increased by R7.40, or 0.8%, to R907.43. This is already far beyond the means of two-thirds of the nation, who are struggling to put enough food on the table to feed their families. We simply cannot afford any more increases in staple foods like chicken and eggs, without severe consequences to the lives of our children,” he said.

And Mervyn Abrahams of the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group also said while plenty of food was being produced, food price inflation put a nutritious diet out of reach for millions of South Africans.

Roets said with the relentless increases in food prices, a growing number of people were resorting to credit facilities to meet their monthly grocery bill requirements.

“This is a dangerous trend and definitely not a long-term solution,” he warned.

Potential VAT hike

South Africans are also keeping a close eye on Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana’s Medium -Term Budget Policy Statement on November 1 to see if any VAT hike is on the cards.

The DA this week said it wanted to make it unequivocally clear that it would reject the addition of any further pressure on already overburdened and battling South Africans and would resist any VAT increase.

However, Business Leadership South Africa’s CEO, Busi Mavuso, said this week, “National Treasury is well aware of the challenges – it has engaged with the rest of government to seek out ways to save money, reducing expenditure to try and make the books balance.

“It has also floated the option of increasing the VAT rate. However, Cabinet, no doubt conscious of a national election next year, has pushed back against those efforts, particularly anything that might constrain the government wage bill.”