Lack of food security a threat to all

A bit of maize-meal porridge, brown bread and tea with milk and sugar. That does not sound too bad, right? Not at all … except if this is basically all you have to eat all day, every day. Such a diet does not represent adequate nutrition because its energy value is too low and it does not provide enough dietary diversity.

Yet these five products are the most widely consumed food items in South Africa. Why? Because it is all most people can afford. The cost of this diet for a five-member household works out to R650 a month, which is far less than the R3 300 for the basic economical diet recommended by nutritionists.

If your household income is only R3 100 a month, which is the average earnings by a South African worker, then your choices are limited. Bear in mind that people have other expenses too, such as housing, clothing, transport and education. So, you end up with a daily energy intake of just 2 500 kilojoules instead of the recommended 8 000 kJ for children and 10 000 kJ to 12 000 kJ for adults.

That is if you are lucky enough to have at least one member of your household employed – in a job that pays the minimum wage. One third of our population is unemployed, a quarter of workers earn less than R1 600 a month, and an estimated 60% of the population live in income poverty, earning less than R570 a month.

No wonder millions of South Africans are food insecure. According to the first South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, published in August, only 46,6% of households in our country regularly have access to enough food for an active life. That means 28 million of our fellow citizens have too little food to eat.

The consequences are severe, especially among children. Stunting is one of the most common nutritional disorders in our country, affecting 20% of all children. Due to hunger and malnutrition their daily intake of energy, minerals and vitamins are less than two thirds of the recommended dietary allowance of the World Health Organisation.

Doctors say once established, stunting is mostly permanent. So, the 1 in 5 South African children who suffer from it will never catch up to their full growth potential. And because their vital organs do not fully develop during childhood, they will probably suffer premature death later in life.

Our Constitution guarantees everyone the right “to have access to sufficient food”, but this is meaningless without concrete steps to make it a reality. So, what is being done?

As is often the case, we do not have a shortage of plans to improve the situation. Since 2002, South Africa has had an Integrated Food Security Strategy, led by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. We have also had the Integrated Nutrition Programme of the Department of Health since 1995, and more recently the Zero Hunger Programme of the Department of Social Development. Other arrows in our policy quiver include the national school nutrition programme, numerous forms of agricultural support and various social security grants.

Yet more than half our population are still food insecure. Professors Mohammad Karaan and Luc D’Haese of Stellenbosch and Ghent universities respectively say part of the problem is that food security related activities “are neither well-coordinated nor optimally developed on a nation-wide basis involving all relevant role players.”

The National Development Plan, which sets out a Vision 2030 for South Africa, identifies food security as a key intervention and output area. Amongst others, it calls for land reform, improved land utilisation for agriculture, smallholder farmer development, growth of sustainable rural enterprises, more investment in agro-processing and better access to markets and financial services for farmers.

Time will tell whether this will work, but we should take heed of the warning by Karaan and D’Haese that “unless all these policies/strategies are coherent and coordinated parts of a food security management approach, failure is likely.”

Part of the problem is also the complexity of food security. There are more than 200 definitions of the concept. It has four dimensions: food availability, access, utilisation and stability/sustainability. And there are four levels of food security to consider: global, national, household and individual.

Another part of the problem is that there is no “gold standard” of measuring and monitoring food security. There have been numerous food-security studies in South Africa over the years, yet uncertainty remains about the exact extent of the problem. It turns out there has never been a national survey measuring all the dimensions of food security using standardised criteria.

In the meantime, the situation is getting worse. Rising food prices means that food poverty is increasing. In 1995, 43% of households in South Africa were unable to afford a nutritionally adequate diet. By 2010, this figure had risen to 80%.

Food insecurity is one of the biggest expressions of our socio-economic inequalities in South Africa. With one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world, our country has an enormous wealth gap. In food security terms, this means that the elite has too much to eat and the masses too little.

This is a recipe for disaster, which we ignore at our peril. Let us not forget that the Arab Spring started with food riots in Tunisia in December 2010.

– ADDITIONAL SOURCES: BFAP Poor Person Index; National Food Consumption Survey; Stats SA

* Feel free to comment below, or tweet me @RusselBotman. I am looking forward to hearing from you. I will be taking part in a panel discussion on food security to be broadcast live from the Neelsie on RSG, 9-11 am on 17 October. (This blog flows from an initial thought leadership discussion that I convened on food security in South Africa recently. Stellenbosch University established a multidisciplinary Food Security Initiative as part of its HOPE Project in 2010.)