Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; mkhabelat@arc.agric.za
Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected]

Spatial approach to food security in SA

By Opinion Time of article published Aug 12, 2020

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By Thulasizwe Mkhabela

JOHANNESBURG - The South African government and policy makers have long appreciated the importance of food security and the right to food is enshrined in South African constitution.

Furthermore, food is the basic building block for sustenance of human life, yet about 26 percent of the population in South Africa was considered food insecure by the South African Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SANHANES) in 2013.

Food insecurity has implications on the local economy, the environment, public health, and the wellbeing of communities. The first step towards the alleviation of the food insecurity problem begins with documenting the spatial dimensions of food insecurity across the country to ensure that food resources are focused on the most vulnerable populations.

The disparities between rural and urban environments are vast, and are often misunderstood, and hard to quantify. If you add the current Covid-19 pandemic to the mix, the water gets even murkier. On a global level, the 2011 Millennium Development Goals Report showed that although progress had been made in addressing food insecurity, the majority of efforts had missed the most vulnerable and rural areas.

In South Africa, however, though there has been continued focus on food access in rural areas, urban food access issues are less understood and the reliance on rural food assessments as standardised instruments of analyses could overstate or understate the food security situation in non-rural environments.

The majority of people who live in urban areas of South Africa do not have access to land suitable for farming, thus rely almost entirely on purchased food for their sustenance. The bulk of the food consumed in South Africa is produced in the rural areas and predominantly from large-scale commercial farms.

A number of innovative strategies have been adopted to bring good, fresh and nutritious food closer to urban dwellers. These strategies include farmers’ markets (mainly on Saturdays), the ever-burgeoning supermarkets and fresh produce (green grocers) outlets. However, the Covid-19 pandemic and the accompanying restrictions have dealt a severe blow to market outlets such as farmers’ markets due to social distancing and the stringent safety and sanitation regulations, albeit temporarily.

There is growing anecdotal evidence that the current coronavirus pandemic is putting strain on urban dwellers, particularly low income groups as prices for certain food items have increased – often opportunistically by traders.

Furthermore, a number of people have lost sources of income and/or have had their earnings reduced as employing businesses battle to stay afloat.

The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that most informal traders find it extremely difficult to trade under the current environment. It should be borne in mind that the informal sector provides livelihoods for many people and households in urban areas, especially the townships and informal settlement areas.

Urban food insecurity often falls under that radar and goes unnoticed thus escaping the scrutiny of policy makers.

However, there is growing consensus that food insecurity is a serious problem in South African urban areas that requires urgent attention from all and sundry.

Agri-food (agricultural & agro processing) research and development has a pertinent role to play in addressing urban food insecurity. Innovative agricultural practices such as urban agriculture, hydroponics and vertical agriculture are all part of the arsenal available to provide food in urban areas.

These innovative approaches require tried and tested technologies in order to be successful. Agricultural research institutions in the ilk of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and universities are poised to supply the requisite technologies, training and support provided they are adequately resources and agile enough to respond to this emerging demand and transition from their traditional approaches of focusing on “mainstream” farming.

These research institutions have a wealth of knowledge and skills to adequately capacitate urban agriculture. Intensive agriculture, such as what is possible for urban agricultural production, often requires substantive capital outlays which is often beyond the reach of most of the target groups. This capital-intensive nature of the business presents an opportunity for financial institutions. However, just like the research institutions, financing institutions require a mindset shift in order to embrace this excellent opportunity.

Focusing on urban municipalities in South Africa to alleviate food insecurity requires an understanding of the multiple indicators of food insecurity and the spatial influence to food insecurity levels across urban spaces.

The use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technology to incorporate spatial analysis to test for spatial clustering in food security indices, thus identifying areas within each metropole that are most vulnerable food insecurity is indispensable in the process.

The Agricultural Research Council can readily provide such technology in partnership with metropole municipalities, relevant government departments such as Departments of Corporative Governance and Traditional Affairs and Social Development & Welfare.

A caveat here is that any policies designed to address urban food insecurity through increased local production should be juxtaposed with the need to use urban areas as markets for agricultural and foodstuffs produced in rural areas as a rural development strategy.

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected]


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