On October 16 we celebrated World Food Day, commemorating the founding of the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation in 1945. This day is also an opportunity for countries to reflect on their food security conditions and efforts to boost agricultural production.

This column will therefore revisit an issue discussed a year ago in these pages: food security conditions in SA. One of the measures researchers use to evaluate the food security condition of each country relative to the world is The Economist’s global food security index.

In 2022 SA ranked 59th out of 113 countries in the index and was the most food secure country in Sub-Saharan Africa. This was an improvement from a ranking of 70th in 2021. We ranked the second most food-secure country in Africa after Morocco.

The index comprises four subindices: food affordability, food availability, food quality and safety, and sustainability and adaptation. The affordability and availability subindices carry a combined weighting of two-thirds of the total index. The affordability subindex includes the change in average food costs, agricultural trade, food safety net programmes, proportion of population under the global poverty line, and funding for food safety net programmes.

The availability subindex includes the sufficiency of supply, access to inputs, agricultural research & development, farm infrastructure, supply chain infrastructure, food loss and political and social barriers to food.

In 2022 SA experienced a mild deterioration in the food affordability subindex. Meanwhile, the rest of the subindices improved significantly. This decline in the affordability subindex is unsurprising as the country has witnessed a broad acceleration in consumer food price inflation since the start of the year.

Food inflation

SA’s consumer food price inflation averaged 9.5% year on year in 2022, up from 6.5% in 2021. Food inflation was also elevated in the first half of 2023, with only the second half showing moderation. In the first eight months of this year food inflation averaged 12.2%.

The higher food inflation in the past months was a global challenge. In an environment such as SA, with high unemployment, the effects of food inflation shocks tend to be felt more severely by consumers.

Over the past few years several factors have added to upward pressure on global food prices. The drought in South America, a major grains and oilseed-producing region, from the 2019/20 season reduced the harvest notably, worsening the grain price increases from 2020 to end-2022.

China’s imports of grains and oilseed as the country was rebuilding its pork industry after a devastating African Swine Fever outbreak added to the surge in demand while global stocks were tight.

As Covid-19 spread in early 2020, several major grain producers worsened global price increases by temporarily banning exports. Shipping costs also soared. These challenges were further worsened by the Russia-Ukraine war.

As a small, open economy SA was not insulated from these global agricultural and food price shocks.

A major issue to remember when observing international agricultural indices such as the 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 may not be site-specific.

Sources of bias can stem from inconsistency in data quality, frequency and reliability across all countries. The weightings and rankings are also tricky because they must be tailored to different socioeconomic contexts.

SA is in a relatively good place regarding food security compared to most other countries. Still, we should continue to strive to improve food security through agricultural production and job creation expansion.

Ideas for expanding agriculture and agro-processing were well established as far back as in the National Development Plan of 2012.

Written for and first appeared in Business Day.

Follow me on Twitter (@WandileSihlobo). E-mail: wandile@agbiz.co.za

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