Photo: Juho Tastula, Freeimages.com

Cape Town - Just 3 percent of South Africa’s farmers produce 95 percent of the country’s formal sector food, according to a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report.

If any of this farmland fell out of large-scale production, it could have serious consequences for the country’s food security. Although data was limited, it suggested the remaining 5 percent of locally produced food was produced by the country’s 220 000 emerging farmers and the 2 million subsistence farmers.

The WWF report, “Farming Facts and Figures”, provides a snapshot of the country’s agricultural sector which is at a crossroads. It said the sector was faced with serious problems, including volatility in international oil prices, depleted soil, polluted and over-extracted water re-sources, uncertainty about land reform and labour discontent. An added factor was climate change, which would “redraw the agricultural map” of what could be grown where, when and in what quantity.

South African farmers could produce most of the country’s food needs, but the 25 percent increase in the population between 2000 and 2013 and the increasing middle class meant more people were eating meat and diary products, which required a more intensive form of farming than for vegetables, grain and fruit.

With farmers already having to deal with dwindling natural resources and limited investment in the sector, “they are not keeping up”. South Africa had recently become a net importer of some “key foods”, including wheat, meat, rice, sugar and poultry.

Only 13 percent of the country had land that was good for cultivation; only 3 percent had truly fertile soils; and just 1 percent had the right climate and soil to cultivate crops fed by rain.

Eskom’s load shedding has had a big impact on the sector, which relied on a constant electricity supply for harvesting, packing, milking, cooling and processing.

The uncertainty about land reform threatened to destabilise the sector further, the report said. The proposed land reform bill of 2015 called for a 12 000ha ceiling on the amount of land one farmer could own. AgriSA had estimated there were 1 200 farms bigger than 12 000ha. “Many of these farms are producing most of South Africa’s food.”

The report quoted the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform’s 2009 review of land reform, which found that 90 percent of land reform projects had failed. The government had spent almost R30 billion to redistribute less than 7 million hectares of commercial farmland, most of which was now operating suboptimally or no longer in productive use.

“The sector needs to be restructured in a way that allows for the redistribution of land and creates some fairness in the access to and ownership of resources. This needs to be done in a way that does not erode food outputs of the country’s farmers… Another round of failed redistribution would have a significant impact on the country’s ability to produce sufficient food.”

The report issued a call to action to everyone in the food system, saying “we do not have to be victims to an inevitable crisis”. Farmers needed to focus on better production practices, share their knowledge with others, use re-sources efficiently and form study groups on agro-ecology.

Government needed to “take a long, hard look at pricing and taxation”, and send the right signals to farmers through the right incentives.

Facts and figures

- 638 000 South Africans are formally employed in agriculture.

- There are 38 000 large-scale commercial farms.

- 30 to 40 percent of food is wasted in every step of the food chain.

- Globally, 75 percent of agricultural crops have been lost.

- Insect-pollinated crops are worth R10bn a year and 100 000 jobs.

- Food production accounts for 30 percent of global energy consumption.

- 25 percent of our soil is susceptible to soil erosion.

- 5 million hectares of cultivated land is seriously acidic from over-fertilisation.

- One-third of our 320 dams are contaminated by phosphates from fertilisers.

- 80 percent of our land surface is taken up by farmlands.

- Poor agricultural practices and unregulated expansion threaten key biodiversity hot spots.

- There has been a 90 percent failure rate of land reform projects.

Cape Times