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CLIMATE IS CHANGING — food and agriculture must too

October 2016

SHERYL HENDRIKS, director: Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being, University of Pretoria

Drought has played a significant role in driving agriculture and food policy reform in South Africa.

Drought is a recurrent theme in South Africa's history. If nothing else, a drought exposes our vulnerability. The current drought has certainly raised the awareness that we are indeed vulnerable to increasingly uncertain climate conditions. The need to change our current production and consumption patterns is obvious and the essence for better planning is clear. Yet, as Prof Coleen Vogel states in a 1994 article, 'While the physical causes of droughts are well understood, few detailed assessments of their consequences have been undertaken.'

The theme of the World Food Day of 2016 is 'Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too'. Observing World Food Day holds many opportunities for South Africa and the region to reflect on the lessons learnt from the current and more recent droughts and droughts in distant past, and take decisive action regarding policy intentions.

World Food Day is observed on 16 October each year since its initiation in 1979. The event commemorates the founding of the organisation in 1945. The initial purpose of the day was to:

  • Heighten public awareness of the nature and extent of the longterm world food problem and to develop further the sense of national and international solidarity in the struggle against hunger, malnutrition and poverty.
  • Encourage more attention to agricultural production in all countries and to stimulate greater national, bilateral, multilateral and non-governmental effort to this end.
  • Promote the transfer of science and technology to developing countries, particularly for the benefit of the small farmer and landless labourer, with a view to possibly bringing about a new agricultural revolution through the development of new biological approaches.
  • Draw attention to successes achieved in food and agricultural development as well as to emergency and other serious needs.
  • Promote participation by the rural masses in decisions and measures affecting their development with a view to closing the gap between actual and potential yields, to promoting greater self-reliance, and to improving living standards for the rural poor.
  • Encourage economic and technical co-operation among developing countries in the fields of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, nutrition and rural development.

It was recommended that: 'The activities centred on World Food Day should be held at local, provincial, national, regional and international levels and should include events and activities appropriate at each of these levels, including ceremonies, displays, competitions, issue of prizes and medals, special television and radio broadcasts, seminars, and other educational activities, and that such activities should be organised or assisted by rural groups, governmental authorities, non-governmental institutions, international organisations and agencies, and in particular by the Food and Agriculture organisation of the United Nations (FAO).'

South Africa, as a member of the FAO, commendably observes World Food Day each year, with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) hosting a high profile event. But, perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the 1987 UN FAO conference statement that urged 'Member governments to make all possible efforts to establish – or to strengthen if they already exist – World Food Day national committees, in order to pursue the positive trend of moving away from a stogie-day observance to a year-round programme of constructive action, and from ceremonial observances to more substantive activities addressing food-related issues.' As drought is a recurring event in South and southern Africa, perhaps this year's World Food Day theme challenges us to a more concerted and focussed effort to shift policy intentions into year-round effort to change production and consumption efforts in South Africa in sustainable ways.

Despite our historical lack of constructive reflection on the impact of drought in South Africa, droughts have had significant influence on our agriculture and food policies in the past. More recent droughts have seen renewed focus on food insecurity.

Following a severe drought in the 1980s, significant quantities of maize and other food products were imported at great cost. Because of this drought, various committees were established to investigate elements of national food supply. This included the Ministerial Protein Advisory Council to investigate, advise on and co-ordinate matters relating to the total demand and supply of protein.

Various President's Council committees reported concerns regarding the country's natural resources and projected demographic trends. In 1984, the Department of Health and Welfare expressed concern about a possible shortage of locally produced food. In response, the Committee for the Development of a Food and Nutrition Strategy for Southern Africa was appointed by the Ministers of Health and Population Development, and of Agriculture.

The findings of this report, as well as the findings and recommendations from the Calitz Committee on Poverty, led to the implementation of the National Nutrition and Social Development Programme (NNSDP), which was initiated in 1991. The primary aim and shortterm goal of the NNSDP were to address the nutritional needs of poor communities and households (across South Africa as well as the Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei [TBVC] countries and self-governing states) through the involvement of local communities, NGOs and government institutions by means of feeding schemes and the distribution of food and other commodities. The long-term focus was to help empower communities to become self-reliant and independent through development efforts.

Following a severe drought in the early 1990s, the National Consultative Forum on Drought was established. Establishment of this commission led to numerous investigations, commissions and policy changes related to drought monitoring, mitigation and responses. It also influenced and shaped future food security and nutrition policies. Due to the severe drought in 1992, a Nutrition Task Force was established under the auspices of the Consultative Forum. The Task Force was mandated to initiate public discussion and debate on national nutrition programmes more broadly than simply focusing on the drought.

However, this time we find ourselves in a significantly different situation. This is the first serious drought that the post-apartheid government has faced. Add to this that the current drought is one of the worst since the 1930s. So much about agriculture and food systems is different to what it was in the 1930s. Except that we are still looking for sustainable ways to fulfilling the FAO Constitution, in which member states '…have undertaken to promote separate and collective action for the purpose inter alia of raising levels of agricultural production, nutrition and standards of living, bettering the condition of rural populations, and ensuring humanity's freedom from hunger.'

At the height of the worst drought since the 1930s, we are again at a food security and nutrition policy crossroads, struggling to co-ordinate multisectoral implementation of the first National Food Security Policy. Among the multiple challenges faced with leadership and coordination of one of our most intractable problems, the drought reminds of the urgency of implementing comprehensive food security and nutrition strategies as part of a bold national effort to deal with climate change in the midst of volatile political and economic change.

Let's take the challenge of World Food Day and make it a national discussion for all of the next 365 days.

Publication: October 2016

Section: Relevant