Nobel Prize-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen once observed that "there is no such thing as an apolitical food problem".
This view particularly applies to South Africa right now, where we face a very real threat to our country's food security due to unsustainable pressure on the poultry industry, the largest component of the agriculture sector.
Chicken, the cheapest form of meat on the market, accounts for about half of the country's protein needs.
The poultry industry supports and provides employment from grain production to poultry production, processing, distribution and retailing. This entails more than 100 000 direct and indirect employees, with many more dependents. There are also those people who supply goods and services to our industry. Well over half a million people need our industry for their personal and business survival.
At this juncture, the only way to stave off the impending crisis is through concerted government intervention: We urgently need a political solution. The South African poultry industry is looking to government to take steps to protect it from the flood of cheap chicken imports - an almost 40% increase in 2011 and all indicators point to at least the same rate for 2012.
We need government support against the "dumping" of cheap imports on the local market while producers - particularly emerging farmers - need support through instruments such as subsidies. Trade policy should be reviewed to stimulate local production and the development of the rural economy.
The new, smaller producers who are the driving force of our transformation as an industry will lose first, and will lose most.
Having witnessed a devastating famine in his native Bengal as a child, Sen's work was strongly influenced by his experience. He came to the conclusion that famine occurs not only because of a shortage of food, but also because of other factors such as rising prices, hoarding, war or price gouging. Hunger can be used as a political weapon to subjugate people.
So, people will go hungry even when there is enough food, but they cannot afford it. Or when the food supply is disrupted by conflict or drawn away from markets to feed armies.
South Africa at risk
In South Africa, the threat facing our poultry industry, and thus our food security, can be managed through concerted and direct state action. For example, the government can limit cheap imports by making use of the existing mechanism to increase tariffs from the current 27% to the permitted 82%; by continuing to monitor and regulate the dumping of chicken onto the local market, and by implementing subsidies to support the local industry, especially the smaller producers and new entrants to the market.
Food security also constitutes an important element of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). In fact, the first of the eight MDGs is to "eradicate extreme poverty and hunger", with its sub-target to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015.
Food security has three principal facets: food availability (enough food consistently), food access (having the resources to obtain food) and food use (the appropriate use of food for basic nutrition and care).
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, which concerns itself with global food security, lists a fourth: the stability of the first three over time. Most countries see food security as an important measure of the nation's psychological wellbeing.
UN secretary-general Ban KiMoon told a food security conference in Rome in 2009 that six million children die annually of hunger - a staggering figure of 17 000 every day.
But hunger has other effects too, which can take generations to conquer: Stunted growth, greater infant and child mortality, cognitive development problems, more disease and lower life expectancy.
By contrast, adequate nutrition offers people, children in particular, the kind of life everyone deserves. Protein is essential to brain development, muscle development and even leadership development.
Surely, with a country such as ours that has the ability to meet its own food needs, hunger and malnutrition should be unthinkable - yet we are on the brink of exactly that.
The South African poultry industry is doing everything it can to stay afloat, but its viability is being eroded by the day. The time is not far off when we will see producers shutting down - first the smaller, more vulnerable producers, and then the larger ones.
The latter are certainly not immune to this situation. Margins are so tight that a 5% return on investment is seen as quite good.
Lessons we need to learn
Should our industry collapse, hunger in our country will increase and not lessen, as the importers would have us believe.
We have long lamented the loss of homegrown industries such as shoes and textiles, which did not enjoy government support and were all but obliterated by cheaper foreign imports. These are lessons that we seem not to want to learn.
But we have also a positive example: government's Motor Industry Development Programme (MIDP). Since 1995, the MIDP has stimulated the local automotive manufacturing industry. The scheme includes initiatives that allow manufacturers to include total export values as part of their local content; it also permits them to import goods, duty-free, to the same value. It is because of the MIDP that we still have an automotive industry - so why dither about another industry that is undoubtedly more critical to our nation's welfare?
Astonishingly, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has explained its indifference to meeting the poultry industry by asserting that the minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, is too busy to meet all sectors in the agriculture industry individually, but would rather make use of the quarterly forum to do so collectively.
Considering that poultry is agriculture's biggest sector, and that so many people's welfare depends on it, this is unacceptable.
The department must be available to meet and consult with the main stakeholders as the need arises.
In the case of the local poultry industry, that time is now.
Source: Business Times via I-Net Bridge.
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