The Economist recently released its Corteva-sponsored Global Food Security Index results for 2021. South Africa is now ranked 70th out of 113 countries, slipping from position 69 in 2020 and 44 in 2019. At face value, this decline is quite concerning. However, when one looks at the Index scoring’s technical position, it becomes clear that South Africa is not doing as badly as the “headline” ranking suggests.

Closer inspection reveals that South Africa’s scoring had a one-point year-on-year (y/y) drop in 2020, and thereafter it has remained unchanged. The score came in at 57,8 in 2021, which is the same level as 2020, but down by 1,4 points from 2019. Nonetheless, other countries have improved notably since 2019 as South Africa stagnated, resulting in the relative deterioration in South Africa’s ranking to 70.

The Global Food Security Index comprises four subindices, namely; (1) food affordability, (2) food availability, (3) food quality and safety, and (4) natural resources and resilience. The affordability and availability have a higher weighting of a combined two-thirds. The affordability subindex includes a change in average food costs and the proportion of a population in poverty. Meanwhile, the availability subindex includes the sufficiency of supply, agricultural infrastructure, and political and social barriers to food.

In 2021, South Africa experienced a mild deterioration in the food affordability and availability subindices by 0,7 and 0,1 points, respectively. Meanwhile, the rest of the other subindices improved marginally.

In the case of affordability, the major challenge was an overall increase in food prices. This is not far off from what even local researchers have observed in various surveys. For example, the fifth wave of the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey highlighted that some households had run out of money to buy food since the pandemic started, thus observing a rise in food insecurity.

Moreover, South Africa’s overall food price inflation has been elevated this year, averaging 6,5% y/y in the first eight months of 2021, from 4,8% in 2020. But it is worth emphasizing that this challenge speaks to the rising cost of food in an environment where more people are out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Importantly, the rise in food prices is a global phenomenon and not unique to South Africa. The dryness in South America, which negatively affected the crops in the 2020/21 production season, combined with growing demand for oilseeds and grains in China, and higher shipping costs, are some of the factors that have underpinned global food price inflation This, in turn, supported prices in South Africa.

In terms of availability, I find the deterioration of this subindex inconsistent with the reality in South Africa. The 2020/21 production season was the second largest in history in terms of grains and oilseeds. In horticulture, the citrus industry had a record harvest, while other fruits and vegetables experienced a general improvement in output. In such an environment of abundant output, one wouldn’t expect a decline in the “availability” subindex. There is also no major change in agricultural infrastructure, and political and social barriers to food over the past nine months compared to 2020. The only notable glitch in supply chains was during the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng unrest and even then, it was short-lived.

A major issue to keep in mind when observing global agricultural indices such as Global Food Security Index, is that subjectivity can never be fully eliminated from the authors’ judgment, resource constraints can hinder objective data collection on the ground in each country, and they sometimes rely on blueprint models that might not be site specific. Sources of bias can stem from the data’s inconsistency in quality, frequency and reliability across all countries. The weightings and rankings are also tricky because they have to be tailored to suit different socio-economic contexts.

Overall, the key message is that South Africa will need to continue to improve agricultural efficiency, which will contribute to job creation and ultimately improve food security.

This essay first appeared on Business Day, 19 October 2021

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