Time to Realign Agricultural Policy

By Glenn Ashton · 4 Dec 2009

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments
Picture: Lollie-Pop
Picture: Lollie-Pop

South African agricultural policy is obsessed with market driven agricultural models while disproportionately high numbers of our people remain hungry. This is a hangover from our historical legacy, which continues in the form of internal and external neo-liberal pressures on government to conform to the tyranny of the market. 

Sure, lip service has been paid to evolving small farmers and pursuing food security. In 1992 a policy called the Integrated Food Security Strategy was developed. Under the Mbeki regime this programme was sidelined to the extent that the first fruits are only now emerging and are completely inadequate to meet the urgent needs of our poorly nourished majority.

South Africa has consistently produced more food than required, sufficient to feed a healthy, balanced diet to every man woman and child in this nation. The market-driven model we inherited in 1994, when around 40% of our people suffered from food insecurity, preventing the fair distribution of food for all, hinders this. Hunger levels are little changed since freedom. Fifteen years of democracy have improved the provision of water, education, health services, housing and sanitation, yet the fundamental human right of access to sufficient nutritious food remains a major blot on our political and collective copybook.

The government's Medium Term Strategic Framework (MTSF), devised to guide the next 5 years of national policy, has indicated a shift of emphasis towards pursuing food security. But a more overarching vision, coupled to detailed interventions, is required. 

It is well and good to provide seed starter packs to 80,000 people as the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) has done in the past year. It is a fine thing that extension services are starting for emerging farmers and households. It is excellent that there is a LandCare Programme to restore eroded and degraded land. It is wonderful that around one Rand in every five caught in the tax web goes toward providing a social safety net for those most in need.

But on the other hand it is incomprehensible that the LandCare Programme cost more than R74,000 per hectare to protect around 7,500 hectares of degraded land in 2007, when the most valuable agricultural land runs at around R50,000 per hectare. 

It is unacceptable that restored land is lying fallow because of unrealistic business plans, dysfunctional Land Bank programmes or because inadequate extension services have been provided for beneficiaries of both restitution and redistribution programmes. It is a tragedy that water sources are wasted and negatively impacted by poor water and sewage management. This in a water-scarce nation, where the nutrient alone could seriously benefit the land if wisely used.

Closer examination shows the dysfunction to be even more profound. The most recent DAFF annual review stated that nearly half the number of new black farmers are failing. Agricultural production growth declined by around 17%, with more than 26,000 jobs lost, when this sector should be growing to feed a growing population. 

Of 7,000 farmers targeted for financial assistance only 49 were helped. Training for farmers fared better; 305 out of the target of 1,100 earmarked for business, marketing and trade development were assisted. A litany of further woes are evident – misuse of funds, irregular expenditure, failure to meet targets and the fact that the Minister apparently spent a quarter of the year abroad being just a few among them. What is even more remarkable is that even though the DAFF has failed in key areas, 99.98% of budget was spent. 

Some may interpret this as good accountability but an underlying malaise remains evident. There is a lack of horizontal integration of focus on food security across departments. Social Services, Water, Environment, Trade and Industry and Transport remain insufficiently involved, highlighting the differences between policy and reality. While the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLF) shifts aggressively toward promoting agricultural production there is an insufficient depth of knowledge of challenges and requirements in that department. For instance the DRDLF emphasis on livestock appears risky, given the limited capacity of DAFF in stock improvement to date. Food production should be prioritised above livestock programmes.

The appointment of a new minister, Tina Joemat-Pietersen, previously a successful head of Agriculture in the Northern Cape is positive, but is it enough? Perhaps we need to ask whether DAFF staff have either the mindset or the capacity to provide the services required for a developmental state, or do they serve neo-liberal interests? Furthermore, the Role of DRDLF needs to be analysed in light of the national Medium Term Strategic Framework and in how it plans to interface with DAFF and other partners.

Agriculture is a primary industry. While it delivers less than 3% of our GDP, the agro-industrial complex is responsible for at least 15% of our GDP. Most importantly, this is the sector we rely on for our food security. 

Agriculture employs around 8% of the national workforce, with huge potential for expansion. Surely an unemployed, hungry person taking steps to feed herself is preferable to her being a social and health burden on society and state? Surely this should be the point of departure for DAFF in a developmental state?  

The NGO sector has managed some exemplary successes in reclaiming agriculture for the urbanised poor. Groups like Abalemi Bezekaya in Cape Town and Food and Trees for Africa in the Highveld are just two examples amongst many. These, together with other training schemes have had disproportionately significant impacts compared to the extensive state resources that have been employed to little apparent effect. 

Not everyone is cut out to be a farmer. Some will be better at marketing, at logistics, at processing or at retailing. Niches will be revealed if opportunities are encouraged. The fact that over half of our population lives in urban areas does not prevent urban food production from providing a significant proportion of food requirements. 

Kampala, Uganda produces more than 60% of its food requirements from within and around the urban limits. Around 35% of its residents are engaged in farming, for household use and for sale. 90% of green leafy vegetables and 60% of milk is produced within the city limits of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania. 76% of vegetables in Shanghai are produced less than 10 kilometres from point of sale. In Beijing 79% of fruit is from a peri-urban source. All of these examples make economic, practical and environmental sense. 

Our Department of Agriculture is gradually evolving from its single-minded focus on highly mechanised monoculture systems toward a more enlightened perspective. While there may be a place for industrial farming it is remarkable that state focus on industrial, genetically uniform and engineered crops remains at the centre of our policy. 

A decade and a half of neo-liberal support has failed to provide any notable improvement in food security for our people. We continue to grow enough food for everyone but people cannot afford this food, nor is a bland monoculture diet much good for anything except livestock. Instead of providing choice, people are forced into this massive, involuntary dietary experiment, located at the heart of the HIV and AIDS pandemic. 

Instead of the continued focus on a dominant industrial agricultural paradigm, on corporate owned and controlled farming systems that come at the cost of our land, our resources and our people, we need a mind-shift in how to not only produce food, but to achieve food security. 

Devolving and democratising the means of food production not only provides a more healthy and varied diet but also spread the economic benefits more widely. Around 20% of our children suffer from stunting caused by poor diet. In Kampala this rate is far lower amongst families who grow their own food. Devolution of agricultural production, support of transport infrastructure and the provision of marketplaces situated at the heart of community life provide a far more relevant model for food security.

Industrial farming systems must be efficient and robust enough to stand on their own merits. It is rather the duty of the state to support the majority of our people who have a less than secure supply of food. 

Food security is intrinsically linked to our national security. We need to prioritise both the provision of food and the opportunities to feed our people in a manner that provides dignity and dietary diversity. We can no longer blindly support a system of farming that forces people from the land, trapping untrained, poverty stricken economic refugees from rural areas in unproductive and unfamiliar urban environments. We need to support the scarce skills of feeding each other and ourselves. This is where the focus of our agricultural policy and its implementation must meet.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/393.1.

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!


Ismail Motala
3 Dec


I like your article and extremely well noted and researched however falls short on looking at the agricultural sector as a whole. Let me explain, you clearly look at government policy but you also need to be able to analyse the industry in terms of allowing Black farmers into the industry. What you will find is that the industry has not transformed and is at this stage very relecutant to do so. There is no pressure for the industry to allow Black farmers to get access to lucrative markets in South Africa and abroad futher acces to new cultivars and genetic material too is very much for whites only.
If the industry transforms with the rest of our society and begins to see Black farmers as part of mainstream agriculture then we would not have the number of failures that we see today.

Respond to this comment

nazeer sonday
4 Dec

Emerging Farmers and Crime

I agree a new strategy needs to be followed that will address food security in urban centres and in rural areas around human settlements. The stats are appalling- agricultural production down by 17% in a country with high unemployment and poverty yet with an abundance of intellectual resources!!
The right agricultural policy has the potential to address the problem of food security and unemployment but we are following the wrong model- large mono-culture farming which is not suited to our present human resource capacity. Why not adopt multi-cropping and mixed farming model that will lead to better utilization of on-farm resources and reduce inputs to the emerging farmer? Why do the DAFF not employ organic and biodynamic agricultural practices with emerging farmers? This is ecologically sound. DAFF also need to provide quality extension services for emerging farmers.
A significant challenge of farming in urban centres is the high crime rate. Crops are stolen, infrastructure (irrigation equipment, sprinklers, fencing, etc) are damaged. Open municipal land, under-utilised school grounds, public parks, etc could be used effectively, but crop theft is a real challenge that needs to be addressed by local authorities. Often, crop theft is not a manifestation of poverty but carried out by gangs of `enterprising` criminals who strip whole fields!

Respond to this comment

Glenn Ashton
6 Dec


Thank you Ismail and Nazeer for your inputs, both of which are useful and relevant.
I agree with you both that we are going to have to change radically how we deal with food security. Perhaps our best example for change comes from Cuba, where a massive re-adaption of farming systems took place in the past 10 years to where the entire system changed from something approaching our industrial process of farming to a far more ecological and holistic vision.
Given the challenges as far as oil supplies, the economic model and water shortages go, we will have to radically change our system. Richard Heinberg (of Peak Oil fame) gives some useful insights in a recent interview at http://www.acresusa.com/magazines/archives/0307InterviewHeinberg.htm
As far as Ismaels concern goes regarding mechanisms for Black farmers to access the market is concerned, Heinberg touches on that as well, where he notes that large industrial farms will have to change and we will have to get more people on back onto the land in order to feed us in a post oil, water stressed farming system. Farming is such a marginally profitable activity that all but the biggest fail and this too must change if we are to survive the fundamental changes to our economic system that will occur in the close future.
All farmers will require support in this time of coming change, it matters not what colour but the fact is that if we open up opportunities and share knowledge and resources across all sectors, if we are going to produce a varied diet that can be accessible to all sectors of the population.
There is a lot more that can and must be written - and more importantly done - on this matter and I am sure it is a subject that will be covered closely in this and other fora.

Respond to this comment