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WORLD FOOD DAY – Guarantee affordable food for all through better policies on agriculture (Op-Ed by Nardos Bekele-Thomas)

16 October 2020 – We celebrate today on 16th October the World Food Day (WFD), whose theme this year is Grow, nourish, sustain. Together. Our actions are our future. The purpose is to raise awareness and take decisive actions over food production, hunger and malnutrition worldwide. This sort of initiative is as relevant today as it was at the time the WFD was adopted 41 years ago, as more than 820 million people in the world still wake up and go to sleep hungry. This is disheartening and shows how far we still are from achieving the Zero Hunger Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target by 2030.

Despite progress made in previous decades, the food production, hunger and malnutrition nexus is facing strains caused by at least three rising trends in the past 20 years or so. The first is climate change-related shocks, which disrupt crop production, contributing to insecurity among subsistence farmers.

The second is the rising demand for biofuels, which has shifted the use of arable land in favour of crops for biofuel production. This has contributed to higher food prices thereby affecting food affordability by the poor. The third is financial speculation in food commodities such as wheat, whose prices become more volatile and cause disturbances in correlated food markets, creating an additional source of insecurity to poor consumers.

These factors contribute to price volatility and food insecurity for the over 2 billion people in the world who, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food.”

Against this backdrop, the world has witnessed, over the same period, rising levels of urbanization, with the proportion of people living in urban areas reaching 56 per cent of the total world population in 2019. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, the urbanization rate is still at 41 per cent. This implies that a large majority of its poor people live in rural areas, where livelihoods for many of them are still based on subsistence farming. This buttresses the policy need to support small-scale food farmers, including through eco-based research and technology, which can yield productivity gains and lead to more sustainable forms of production. This, in turn, can contribute to substantial reduction in hunger and malnutrition among the rural poor.

In South Africa , the urban population was at 67 per cent in 2019, thus higher than the average for Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, the largest contingents of the South African poor, and by consequence, of those most likely to experience hunger and malnutrition, are still to be found in the rural sector. Indeed, a 2018 World Bank-led study shows that, in South Africa, 60 per cent of the poor live in rural areas, where poverty is deeper and more unequal. This means that tackling hunger and malnutrition among the country’s rural poor should be a priority for policy action. This requires great attention to rural development, including investment in biodiversity for food security and resilience to climatic shocks.

At the same time, urbanization in South Africa is increasing rapidly and it will catch up at some point in the future with those levels from comparator countries such as Argentina (92 per cent), Brazil (87 per cent), Mexico (80 per cent) and Russia (75 per cent). This implies that, to eliminate hunger by 2030, the government will have to pull all its policy levers to tackle urban poverty historically concentrated in townships and informal settlements. Unlike for rural areas, in this case the focus should be on food affordability given the low levels of income.

Accordingly, it is essential that social protection programmes be expanded and become permanent, to cover those most vulnerable, especially women, whose poverty levels are higher than men and children. Of course, social protection should cover the rural poor as well, since not all of them are producers; and those who are producers have too little cultivable land and rely on low-productivity techniques, hence failing to produce enough to meet their needs. Moreover, they face food insecurity due to irregular streams of income, a lack of savings to cover periods of income gaps and to withstand shocks.

Expansion of social protection has become ever more urgent as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic has hit the poor and the vulnerable the hardest. According to Statistics South Africa, a significant proportion of households report inadequate or severely inadequate access to food – 21.3 per cent in 2018. The hardest hit, therefore, needs urgent access to regular income to be able to withstand the current and future crises with no hunger.

The long-term solution is to build back better, whereby a concerted approach is adopted: first, guarantee food affordability to all (urban and rural poor), through policies that create jobs and expand the social protection system to cover the unemployed. Consequently, the Government of South Africa is correct in stressing in its Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, release last week, the need to support labour-intensive industries.

Among those industries, agriculture is one that could be a source of jobs including to the youth who constitute the largest group of unemployed in the country. In addition, the decision by the government to maintain the COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant is commendable. Indeed, the government could go further and fully introduce a Basic Income Grant. Enhancing incomes would also help to reduce food waste.

Second, the approach should entail full programme support to food systems that are based on more sustainable agriculture practices and more resilient to shocks. Moreover, small-scale farmers should have easier access to finance and markets, including through digital platforms and technologies such as fintech and e-commerce.

All evidence indicates that climate change is affecting agricultural productivity – especially of poor smallholder farmers. By 2030, it is projected, 90 per cent of the world’s major crops, including maize, rice and wheat, will experience reduced or stagnant growth rates. Agriculture is also a major part of the climate problem. According to the World Bank, it currently generates 19–29 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Without action, that percentage could rise substantially. Mitigating against these adverse effects requires investment in the adoption of climate smart agricultural practices. In addition, global action is also required and as a regional power South Africa has an important role to play.
Nardos Bekele-Thomas is the United Nations resident coordinator in South Africa.