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More of the same cannot change agriculture

August 2011

Jannie de Villiers, Uitvoerende hoofbestuurder/CEO

For the past 25 years I was intensely involved in agricultural policy in South Africa. I grew up during the control boards era and with hundreds of regulations. There I sat through all the many meetings during the closing of the boards and the founding meetings of all the new structures, companies and trusts that currently serve the free market. South African agriculture progressed very well in making the free market work and to introduce and effect improvements. However, we have now reached a point in time where “more of the same” is just not good enough anymore!

Our existing ways and means of operation is keeping the free market going at a healthy jog, but our policy environment is not keeping pace with what is happening in practice and we are not getting much done about this. There are various reasons for this problem, namely:

  • Mistrust between the government and commercial agriculture;
  • Diverging goals between the government and commercial agriculture; and
  • Discord in agriculture.

Our ability to improve the policy environment via organised agriculture is waning, the once enthusiastic consultations of the government continue to decrease and the period for commentary sometimes borders on the absurd. To request inputs and recommendations from organised agriculture regarding job creation on 24 December 2010 and requiring it to be on the table on 10 January 2011, can just not be considered as being consultation.

What is to be done now to overcome these problems? Organised agriculture’s efforts are not less, but the impact thereof is definitely not effective. The mistrust definitely has something to do with the discord in agriculture as well as the widely divergent agendas with which the parties come to the table. An agenda about curbing poverty is not easily reconciled with another one that has profitability in agriculture as  priority. We are shouting and remonstrating louder and louder at and with one another without hearing each other. Thus, no headway! It almost sounds like the Doha round of the World Trade Organisation’s negotiations between the wealthy countries who subsidise their agricultural producers and the poor countries who cannot compete and are now stuck without food.

A very serious effort is required from agriculture to address discord and unity to once again earn the right to be heard. The government on the other hand will have to realise that without profitability, food cannot be produced sustainably in the country. Agriculture in the late nineteen nineties did not have the inherent ability to make the move from the controlled environment to the free market. The government in 1996 just pulled the plug on the controlled marketing system and we were left to our own devices. This makes one wonder what is required now to bring about unity in agriculture. Maybe some of what is required is currently happening: Few or no appointments with politicians and decision makers; no or ridiculously low tariff protection levels; reduction of research funding and poor border control.

My plea is that agriculture, other than in the 1990’s, should find the internal leadership to make this move. I raise my hat to the Grain SA Executive who has already taken the first steps to unity in agriculture. One can only hope that this will happen at national level too. Steps towards unity might sound unpopular today, but it is our salvation for tomorrow!

Publication: August 2011

Section: Editorial