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Food insecurity in South Africa: A national imperative

This article was first published in Afrikaans as ‘Genoeg kos, maar te veel leë mae in SA’ in the Landbouweekblad magazine and on its website. It is available to Landbouweekblad subscribers here.


South Africa’s Food insecurity

Food is one of the most basic human needs, yet millions worldwide cannot access the nutrition they require to survive. Food security, or the ability to access safe, nutritious, and sufficient food, is a pressing global issue that affects people of all ages, races, and genders. With the world’s population expected to reach 9.7bn by 2050, ensuring food security is more important than ever. Without it, we risk not only the health and well-being of individuals but also the stability of communities and entire nations. The global, fundamental human right to food is enshrined in Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and within the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

From a South African (SA) perspective, the right to food is enshrined in the 1996 Constitution of the Republic of SA. This further obliges the SA government to take the necessary steps (within the context of its available resources) to achieve these rights. Despite these well-enshrined rights, hunger is widespread at the SA household level in urban and rural areas, with evidence of stunting, wasting, and micronutrient deficiencies among children. According to the first South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SANHANES‐1), only 45.6% of the SA population is food secure. Thus, despite SA being food secure at the national level (i.e., volume-wise, there is enough food within our borders), as a country, we face concerningly high levels of food insecurity at a household level.

It is essential to remember that food and nutrition security encompasses more than simply calorific intake. The concept of nutrition security ought to be viewed separately from that of food and nutrition security – good nutrition is achieved through a suitably nutritious and balanced diet. Of late, the ‘nutrition transition’ concept has become a concern, particularly within developing countries such as SA. The idea essentially refers to the increased consumption of animal products, fats and refined sugars as they become more affordable and easily accessible to consumers in developing countries. Overall, nutrition security exists when a nutritionally adequate diet combines regular physical activity, a sanitary environment, good health services, knowledge, and care. As such, SA faces not a national food security problem but a structural household food insecurity problem, primarily caused by widespread poverty and unemployment.

It is commonly understood that SA has one of the highest income inequalities in the world. Unlike other ‘middle-income’ countries, we have incredibly high levels of absolute poverty. Aside from poor incomes and high unemployment levels, the food insecurity problem within SA is further compounded by price volatility, urbanisation trends and the increasing dependence of poor households on cheap, highly processed food. Thus, food insecurity within SA is not a short-term phenomenon but a long-term, chronic threat grounded within our society’s various economic, political, social and institutional aspects. Simply put, the reasons for the high levels of persistent food insecurity in SA are complex and interrelated and span various environmental, health, economic, socio-political, and agro-food-related issues. So, what does this all mean? Well, at the end of the day, food security depends not only on the availability and production of food but also on a range of entitlements that both enables and protects economic and social access to food.

Yet, of late, the economic and social access of the average South African to adequately nutritious food is increasingly under strain due to the current heightened food inflationary environment. Over the past year, SA food inflation has more than doubled and currently sits at 13.9% YoY as of April. Globally, however, food prices are decreasing. The FAO Global Food Price Index (FFPI), which measures the monthly change in the international prices of a basket of food commodities, declined by 2.6% MoM in May 2023, marking the fourteenth consecutive monthly decline since reaching its peak in March 2022. The index has fallen by as much as 22.1% from this all-time high. However, this downturn in global food prices is not transferring through to the local SA market – so the question is, why? Unfortunately, SA’s rand depreciation has offset much of this global decline. At the same time, persistently high levels of loadshedding have added significant costs across the agriculture and food value chain. Looking ahead, naturally, any significant appreciation in the coming months would have the opposite effect – easing domestic prices for agricultural commodities. However, this effect could lessen if loadshedding is maintained at lower levels. Unfortunately, the consensus is that loadshedding will likely remain at relatively high levels for the foreseeable future, which will, in turn, be a critical factor in keeping local food prices higher for longer.

If anything, this recent period of heightened food inflation highlights that food insecurity within SA is not a short-term phenomenon but rather a long-term, chronic threat grounded in various economic, political, social and institutional aspects of SA society. Thus, on the part of policymakers, there is a need for a thorough understanding surrounding the dynamic, intricate nature of the food system to comprehensively tackle the complex problem of food and nutrition insecurity in SA.

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