Durban - The country could be facing a food crisis of a magnitude not experienced since the crop failures of 1992, when the government had to subsidise mealie meal for the poor, if the north-west Free State, North West Province and Mpumalanga do not get sustained rain of at least 20mm in the next fortnight.
Chief executive of Grain SA Jannie de Villiers said there was already “90 percent certainty” of a significant grain shortage, owing to extreme heat and low rainfall in those three areas recently.
De Villiers said that by Thursday the government would announce the quantity of maize the country would harvest this season, but it was likely it would be significantly short of what is needed for domestic consumption.
De Villiers said the country had 2.6 million hectares of maize in the ground and, despite the fact that last year produced the second-highest yield on record, North West Province, the north-west Free State and Mpumalanga – the areas that produce the bulk of the country’s maize – had received no rain from mid-February and had experienced extremely high temperatures.
“One farmer told us that in the Free State area of Botha-ville there would normally be eight days in the year when the temperature was above 32ºC. Since the start of the year, there have already been 22 such days,” De Villiers said.
“Combined with the low rainfall, the extreme heat limits the ability of the mealie kernels to fill the cob, with a negative impact on the viability of the crop.”
The chief executive said that, while exact figures were not yet available on what the shortfall in domestic maize produce would be, “South Africa needs 10.2 million tons to feed those who rely on maize as their staple diet”.
He said local shortages would also have an impact on neighbouring countries such as Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Namibia, whose people also relied on the staple food.
“The price of mealie meal has increased by around 50 percent, so the poorest of the poor are hard hit.
“They are paying far more than usual for the mealie pap that is their main food source.”
De Villiers said the failure of the local maize crop was exacerbated by the fact that the developed world did not produce white mealie meal for human consumption, but only for animal feed, thus limiting import options.
However, he said it was still too early to declare a food security emergency.
“We are red-flagging the issue, but we will only know the true extent of the problem in six to eight weeks’ time. By the end of March, we will have a clearer idea of where we stand.
“While the early plantings have had it, there is still young maize that might survive if we get adequate rain in the next few weeks.”