Tackling Food Insecurity in South Africa

IN NEED: Its tragic that one in four South African children under three years experience stunting -reduced height for age, which is the result of poor nutrition and predisposes to later obesity, ill health, poor educational outcomes and poor earning potential, says the writer.Picture: Antoine de Ras

Estimates on the number of South Africans going hungry every day run into the millions according to various sources including Statistics SA (Stats SA), researchers and organisations working to fight hunger. This is despite producing enough staple foods as well as having the capacity to import food if needed, to meet the basic nutritional requirements of its growing population. This alarming dichotomy suggests a breakdown in collective efforts to strengthen food security and fight hunger, two activities which should not be mutually exclusive. 

The right to food is enshrined in both international and national law. At the macro level, South Africa’s commitment to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) includes meeting targets to ensure that hunger is eradicated and good health and well-being are prioritised by 2030. Regionally, similar commitments have been made through NEPAD’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and SADC’s Regional Agricultural Policy. Domestically, the issue of food security was elevated post-1994, with the right to access to sufficient food being enshrined in Section 26 and 27 of The Constitution. The Constitution is clear that every South African citizen has a right to sufficient food. This idea is reiterated in the National Development Plan (NDP) and is meant to be operationalised by the work being done throughout government and within the agricultural, manufacturing and retail sectors. 

So how does South Africa fare?

Food security is a complex and broad concept, defined in various ways by a number of organisations around the world. In accordance with its international definition, food security is said to exist when all people in a society have enough food for an active, healthy life at all times. Standard definitions of food security identify four main components, namely food availability, access, stability and utilisation.

Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicates that South Africa’s aggregate food supplies have been steadily rising for the past 20 years to 2013, not only in absolute terms but faster than population growth. Food supplies increased from around 2 800 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day in the mid-1990s to over 3 000 kcal/capita/day by 2013 (see Figure 1 below). According to the Economist’s Global Food Security Index (GFSI) 2017, a unique country-level food security measurement tool that reports on the issues of affordability, availability and utilization, South Africa is ranked number 44 out of 113 countries surveyed, with a score of 64/100. (Source: FAO Stats, 2017)
Food security is not only about how much food is available at the national level, but it is also about who has access to that food – from availability to accessibility, which in market-dependent households, is determined mainly by affordability. Although South Africa may be food secure at the national level, the same cannot be said about households, especially in rural areas. A sizeable number of households and individuals are still food insecure, not as a result of food availability, but largely due to a lack of purchasing power brought on by high unemployment rates and other socio-economic factors.

The latest Stats SA General Household Survey (2016) indicates that about 1.97 million households and 7.39 million persons were still vulnerable to hunger in 2016, a majority of whom are living in rural provinces. This, despite the fact that between 2002 and 2016, the percentage of households that experienced hunger decreased from 23.8% to 11.8%, while the percentage of individuals who experienced hunger decreased from 29.3% to 13.4% (see Figure 2 below). This could be attributed to social grants which have played an important role in improving household food security since early 2001, but slight improvements in employment status are also important during these periods.(Source: Stats SA General Household Survey, 2016)
The Household Food Insecurity Access Scale (HFISA), which is aimed at determining households’ access to food, shows that the percentage of South African households with inadequate or severely inadequate access to food decreased from 23.9% in 2010 to 22.3% in 2016. Simultaneously, the percentage of persons with more limited access to food declined from 28.6% in 2010 to 24.9% in 2016. (Source: Stats SA General Household Survey, 2016)

Food access problems are most common in the North West province, where 36.6% of households had inadequate or severely inadequate food access in 2016. Incidences of inadequate or severely inadequate access to food are also observed in the Northern Cape, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape where 33.6%, 31.1% and 26.4%  of households respectively experience problems related to accessing food. (Source: Stats SA General Household Survey, 2016)

 Tackling food insecurity

Addressing the issue of food insecurity for the millions of South Africans on or below the poverty line, especially in the rural areas most impacted requires the collaboration and coordination of efforts from a wide range of stakeholders across sectors.

The steady increase in food production over the years is hugely positive. Growth in the agricultural sector has already helped to lift the country out of a technical recession and as such, its value to the economy cannot be understated in the least. However, increasing food production remains meaningless to the unacceptably high numbers of South Africans who cannot access enough food to sustain themselves.

A multi-faceted approach involving growing food production, increasing employment and creating easier access to food is needed. The agricultural sector, as one of the main players tasked with tackling food insecurity, must take a leading role in the response.

Empowering people to grow their own food for subsistence or income generation will provide nourishment and potential income to many people in the country. Smallholder agriculture needs to play a bigger and more effective role in addressing food insecurity across the country, especially in rural areas. An estimated 2.5 million households in South Africa are engaged in agricultural production activities and most of them (more than three-quarters) do so in an attempt to secure an additional source of food, or purely for subsistence. Only 11% of these households get agricultural-related support from the government, a clear indication that a lot still needs to be done to support these households in addressing the issue of food insecurity. Subsistence agriculture should be supported as a strategy to address rural food insecurity. Subsistence production not only contributes directly to these households’ food security as a supply of food, but also enables households to divert income to meet other requirements.

As the primary economic activity in rural areas, the National Development Plan estimates that the agricultural sector has the potential to create close to one million new jobs by 2030. The work being done to grow the sector is still skewed towards existing commercial enterprises. The opportunity to directly address the hunger issue lies in the creation of opportunities for new entrants to the sector throughout its value chain, especially emerging black farmers, youth and women.

More jobs for more people in the sector allows for greater access to food and a reduction in hunger. While transformative work is already underway in the sector, the pace of change has been slow. Speeding it up will require a greater appetite amongst established players to reshape the sector together with tighter coordination to realise the development impact between all of its key players.

World Food Day provides another opportunity for us to reflect on the realities many South Africans still face on a daily basis. It is also an urgent call-to-action for policy makers, government, business, civil society and the agricultural sector to come together to fill the gap for those most in need by addressing the challenges between policy intent and delivery on the ground. Simply put, this means that in food secure South Africa, no South African should go hungry. 

Mashabela is an Agricultural Economist by profession currently serving as a Research Analyst at Land Bank