Part two of a three-part series on the state of food security in South Africa. Last time we looked at how global crises are affecting food security in Africa. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and the impending European energy crisis are having ripple effects across the globe. So what are the future implications of global food insecurity for South Africans and others around the world?
Things may worsen before they improve
According to a recent Business Insider article, the key challenges in the global food crisis could shift in 2023. This year, problems with logistical constraints have been foremost in the thoughts of most analysts. Experts are warning, however, that the focus will likely shift to supply shortages.
One of the main reasons is that conflict in Ukraine has disrupted the annual planting and harvest cycles in this important wheat-producing nation. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has warned that the country’s harvest could be halved this year, with global management consultants McKinsey publishing similar forecasts.
Business Insider reports expert predictions that despite decreasing food prices, markets will continue to be volatile. Global price decreases may not be reflected in local markets for a year or more. It is feared that by then supply shortages will have pushed those global prices back up again.
The ongoing effects of the European energy crisis and other issues
As we move into the Northern Hemisphere winter, the European energy crisis looks set to have a major effect on world markets. This has been exacerbated by fears surrounding leaks in the Nord Strom natural gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea.
“Natural gas is used for cooking, heating, and fertiliser – that’s how we grow food,” notes Jason Bordoff, Founding Director of the Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University, adding that about 70% of European fertiliser production has shut down because energy is too expensive.
He points out that rather than preventing people from heating their homes, politicians will shut down industry in the face of scarce energy resources. “Fertiliser is a big part of industry and that’s going to have a big impact in poorer parts of the world in terms of food production,” he continues.
The main drivers of food insecurity – conflict, Covid-19 and the related economic downturn, and climate change – interact with each other. So says Máximo Torero, Chief Economist of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). “Climate change has two dimensions: extremes such as flooding, which are currently affecting Pakistan, and variability, which makes it very difficult for farmers to make decisions,” he expands. Thus, farmers will have to compete with not only an ever changing climate but also increased fertiliser prices and fertiliser shortages into the foreseeable future.
Torero and other experts were speaking at a session of the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Meetings at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September.
Geraldine Matchett, of global bioscience corporation Royal DSM, was another expert at the session, entitled Food and Energy: Tackling a Global Resource Crisis. Matchett notes that producing food without fertiliser reduces yields by 50%, and that the current fertiliser situation is not just an access problem but an availability problem. This is supported by Torero, who says that 10 fertiliser plants have closed in Europe. The continent will thus move from being an exporter of nitrogen to a net importer, which will most affect poorer nations.
A study conducted by environmental economist Robert Mendelsohn has shown that changes in climate will heavily impact not only small-scale farmers, but also large commercial agricultural operations, noting that “tropical and subtropical agriculture in developing countries is more climate sensitive than temperate agriculture. Even marginal warming causes damages in Africa and Latin America to crops”.
Mendelsohn also points out that different climate scenarios may bring with them different effects: “If climate scenarios turn out to be relatively hot and dry, they will cause a lot of damage to farms in low latitude countries. However, if climate scenarios turn out to be relatively mild and wet, there will be only modest damages and maybe even beneficial effects.”
Hope springs from cooperation and adaptation
At the WEF meeting, Matchett stated that she believes with COP 27 and 28 coming up, a renewed focus on regenerative agriculture and cooperation may be pivotal. Regenerative agriculture refers to practices that rebuild soil organics and restore degraded soil biodiversity. This helps to reverse climate change by sequestering carbon and improving the water cycle. “Climate, food, and energy all hang together. I’m really hopeful that now we’re going to have the right conversations,” she says. “It’s been very much a siloed energy discussion, as if energy is a standalone thing… (but) we have seen when food fails, everything fails.”
The South African context
Wandile Sihlobo, Agricultural Business Chamber of SA Chief Economist, has tempered warnings that local consumers will feel price increases, pointing out that we are still in a relatively favourable position. He asserts this is due to our “vibrant agricultural sector” and that “the country has secured sufficient supplies to last for some time”.
On the other hand, others argue it is not a question of food availability, but rather accessibility. As reported by the Mail & Guardian, “While South Africa is technically food secure, on average at a national level, most households lack access to adequate food.” Agri SA has also raised concerns that escalating load-shedding may soon affect our food security.
In the face of these and other varied challenges, South Africa would benefit from regenerative agriculture approaches to safeguard and improve food security. This includes increasing support for local community market gardens, intercropping in food forests and enterprise orchards, and sustainable permaculture programmes. For instance, Food & Trees for Africa has long recognised the importance of food security at household level. By helping to create and support community food gardens across South Africa we can ensure that more people are food secure throughout many societal and environmental challenges.
Coming up: next time, we will take a closer look at these and other potential solutions to alleviate the global food security crisis.