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A new season for agriculture

April 2011

Jannie de Villiers, CEO

The effect of the food price increases in 2007/2008 internationally brought about a permanent change in policy.  Politicians all over realised that hungry, unemployed people have only one of three options in life: rioting, migration or dying. Governments that have come to grief as a result of unrest amongst the populace, not only grabbed the attention of politicians but also set in motion the rigidity of certain policy makers. Investing in agriculture cannot just remain a discussion point.

Some countries achieved it quicker than others but work started all over to address the issue of food security. Indonesia recently purchased an additional 800 000 tonnes of rice (their staple food) to put into storage in expectation of high food prices. They assessed the impact of the unrest in the Middle East and took an irrational (uneconomical) decision in favour of their own best interests: Our people must have enough food!

About affordability one can do something in the short term but availability is coupled to Mother Nature. Hungry, unemployed people cannot wait another season. South Africa’s producers have rapidly adapted to and mastered the free market since 1997 and can today reasonably easily adapt to market signals. An example is this year’s swing to yellow maize and soy beans. We are, however, saddled with rigidity in changes in the policy environment.

Grain SA’s endeavours to empower producers to adapt to the changes are praiseworthy – market information, accurate crop estimates and interpretation of market signals. Where we have failed, however, was to energise the government to effect rapid policy changes in line with international events. In the future it cannot be acceptable to just blame apartheid for high food prices or food shortages. This situation necessitated a strategic decision and the leadership has done the brave thing to move the Grain SA office to Pretoria. There is no sense in achieving full marks for our service to the producers but we fail in influencing the government.

It is a case of doing the one and not neglecting the other. Our next move is to get the Government to also take a brave decision with the objective to achieve food security for the country and its people. Congress was clear about this. Let us do a few strategic things right and produce more! Export promotion includes exporting more but also achieving import replacement by enlarging the local market. These suggestions have been on the agendas for a considerable time but lacks decision making.

There are a number of options to kick off the bio fuels initiative. If the government is still concerned about sufficient staple food, why not then exclude white maize and wheat?

These and other recommendations form part of a package to take grain production to a new level. The urgency with which our government is seeking employment creation solutions must now be married to food security and maybe in the near future a newcomer will be born in the grain industry.

Is the coming 2011 food crisis perhaps the trigger that will have us, after 17 years of democracy, bury the battle-axes with a single vision for agriculture? Enough affordable food, produced sustainably for all!

Publication: April 2011

Section: Editorial