To Fight Food Prices, S. Africa Urges Return to Farming

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg, South Africa
for National Geographic News
July 7, 2008
Part eleven of a special series that explores the local faces of the world's worst food crisis in decades.

With the global food crisis forcing South Africa's poor to struggle to make ends meet, officials have put forward a novel solution: Resume the subsistence agriculture that used to be part of the area's heritage.

A significant portion of South Africans and the majority of the country's poorest people live in rural areas, finance minister Trevor Manuel said.

"Higher prices are a signal to plant," he told National Geographic News. "This is true for poor people in rural areas as it is for large-scale commercial farmers."

Overall food prices have gone up 15.3 percent in South Africa over the past 12 months, with fats and oils increasing by a whopping 52.1 percent and heavily used staple grains by 22.9 percent.

(Related video: "World Food in Crisis.")

Failing to plant crops on fallow land would squander an opportunity to protect the poor from an erosion of incomes because of these higher prices, Manuel said.

And while most urban dwellers do not have the land to plant sufficient food, many have vegetable gardens that could be used to supplement household food provisions, he added.

Buying in Bulk

Manuel has a firm supporter in Tony dos Santos, owner of a popular grocery store named Le Bamba in a region next to Kruger National Park that is home to some of South Africa's poorest communities.

Watching destitute people buy food these days is heartrending, dos Santos said.

"They arrive in groups, and you see them take items from the shelves, look at the price, and have serious discussions before putting them back, shaking their heads," he commented.

"They usually split into separate groups, which walk considerable distances to other shops to see if they can find better prices there. If they do, they buy in bulk and divide up the items."

Many people are only buying the basics, and more are finding it hard to afford even such foodstuffs, he added.

"Can you blame them? Take cooking oil, for instance. Two years ago I sold it at Rand 13.00 [around U.S. $1.70]. Now it costs Rand 40.00 [around U.S. $5.30]."

So "yes, people must learn to use available agricultural land—even small patches in their backyards—to the best possible advantage," he said.

"I have been to [Portugal's] Madeira and was surprised to see that even there people do not make use of all the available land anymore. But it applies particularly to Africa. Food aid is good and well, but it is learning how to use the available land properly that holds the long-term answer."

Government Aid

Asked why people have moved away from subsistence farming, finance minister Manuel's communications officer, Kuben Naidoo, explained that it might have to do with social grants or because food prices had been falling over the past 15 years when adjusted for inflation.

It might also be because of poor support from provincial agriculture departments.

The minister now supports the idea of small-scale farmers clubbing together, such as through farmer co-ops, to buy equipment and goods and to sell at better market prices. The legislative framework has been set up to facilitate such arrangements.

Manuel has also been strongly critical of the global shift from food into biofuel production, especially in the United States.

Subsidies paid to farmers in such countries to produce feedstocks for biofuel have priced staple grains out of the reach of the world's poorest people, he said.

To help internally, the South African government has specifically excluded maize from the country's nascent biofuel industry. And it has reduced the targeted biofuel component of the country's fuel needs from 4.5 percent to 2 percent, to 100 million gallons (400 million liters) a year by 2013.

(Related: video: "Mozambique's Better Biofuels" [June 19, 2008].)

South Africa also has a special cabinet committee looking into other ways of easing the impact of price rises. Among the measures already being implemented are targeted welfare grants and an extended program to feed schoolchildren.

The Government Communication and Information System also issued a statement after the cabinet meeting on April 16, 2008, saying that one of the things the committee is looking into is suspect behavior in the food industry, which the cabinet believes to be contributing to higher prices.

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