Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an experienced agricultural economist and the group executive: impact & partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council. Picture: Supplied
Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an experienced agricultural economist and the group executive: impact & partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council. Picture: Supplied

Food security and socio-economic development: revisiting investment in agricultural research and development

By Opinion Time of article published Mar 9, 2021

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By Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela

The economic and agricultural landscape in southern Africa has undergone considerable change in the past few decades.

All countries in this region have experienced robust economic growth and improvement in human development indices, reducing poverty and malnutrition to a great extent. Yet, it remains home to sizeable proportion of the population’s poor and malnourished people.

Eleven out of the 14 southern African countries (this excludes the island states of Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar), under the auspices of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) have an estimated 130 million people inhabiting an area of about 555 million hectares, thus giving a population density of 23.5 people per square kilometre. The population places an enormous burden on the relatively small and declining natural and agricultural resource base.

Dealing with such issues reminds one of Thomas Malthus’s (1766-1834) hypothesis. It postulates that a rapidly growing population will inevitably outstrip any society’s capacity to produce enough food. This will result in mass starvation and human misery.

Though humanity has been largely able to avert the doomsday prediction, thanks to the development of modern cutting-edge agricultural research and development and technologies, increasing hunger and malnutrition remain a stark reality especially in resource-poor countries like some in southern Africa, where 34% (44.8 million people) of the population suffers from food insecurity, according to a recent SADC report.

Food insecurity increased by 10% in the region last year compared to the previous year, largely as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change-induced change, conflict (collapsed governance) and economic challenges.

Despite agriculture playing an important role in the SADC economy, with most inhabitants depending on agriculture as their main source of livelihood, accounting for about 8% of the regional GDP, government expenditure on agricultural research and development remains shockingly low in most countries.

The threatening situation of hunger and food insecurity is farther compounded by poor agricultural infrastructure, inappropriate use of resources, and inadequate investment in agricultural research and development.

Though southern Africa has more technical and scientific expertise in research and development than before, the prevalence of hunger and malnutrition indicates that there is plenty of room to improve. The fact that the southern African population is projected to exceed 300 million by 2050, which is unquestionably a colossal task, increasing funding on agricultural research and development remains a priority in the main development agenda.

While an increasing number of countries have been experiencing a steady rise in agricultural research and development spending since 2000, in southern Africa, government expenditure in agriculture has declined or has been very low in recent years in all countries, including South Africa.

Although South Africa’s agricultural research and development has been increasing and is the highest in the SADC, it is low compared to its fellow BRIC competitors and other similar emerging economies.

Though southern Africa, as a region, has doubled its agricultural research and development spending between 2003 and 2013 – co-incising with the Maputo Declaration commonly known as the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), the agricultural research and development investment to agricultural output ratio remains significantly lower compared to other emerging economies.

The rate of increase in investment is insufficient and has not been sustained. Ensuring sustainable food supply for the growing population is a daunting task and calls for placing maximum emphasis on an increase in agricultural productivity.

Increased investment in public research has shown to account for 30% of the output growth. It is also a noticeable fact that the growth rate is not steady. It has fluctuated substantially since the 1970s. Increased growth volatility in agriculture is not a good sign for the long-term food security of southern Africa’s burgeoning population. Hence, it must be addressed by increasing fund and reinforcing research and innovation.

Arguably, in the context of agri-based economies, the agricultural sector holds the ultimate promise to slash extreme poverty and combat chronic hunger. Hence, the fight against poverty and hunger must begin with agricultural development. It is common knowledge that investments in agricultural research, infrastructure, and education generally rank high in terms of returns in form of economic growth and poverty reduction.

Increased research and development investments offer the possibilities to enhance the quantity and quality of agricultural outputs, increased income source, greater food security, and better nutrition. In the long term, the investment will be crucial in all countries, in order to move the technology frontier and sustain productivity growth.

The agriculture holds the key to ensure domestic food security which is inextricably linked to social and national security. Sustainable food supply is a fundamental component for maintaining social stability, and chronic food shortage is generally associated with social uprising, increased violence and political instability, especially in face of the Covid-19 pandemic onslaught.

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an experienced agricultural economist and the group executive: impact & partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites

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