16 Mar

How climate change affects food security


South African farmers have increasingly reported extreme and unpredictable weather events which are changing the way we grow and consume food.

In 2015, a hail storm which lasted under two minutes wiped out R60 million in export grapes. But here’s the kicker. This freak hail storm occurred in Porterville in the Western Cape. In December. And in the last 80 years of recorded weather in the area, there has never been a hail storm.

The upshot was that about 500 seasonal women labourers lost their income – income which they rely on to provide for their families for the entire year.

The storm nearly sank the company, and caused the farming conglomerate to invest in three hail cannons to the value of R30 000 each. Unfortunately, not every farmer can afford such technology. And at what stage does the cost of such technology outstrip production profit, causing farmers to close up shop completely?

When crop damage happens, it sends a ripple of negative effects throughout the entire food chain. And while you might never see those export grapes at your local supermarket, some export crops subsidise local crops – like the apple industry for example. So, if our export apple industry tanks, so does our local market, which means apples of poor quality, or super expensive apples or no apples at all for you and yours.

South African farmers have increasingly reported extreme and unpredictable weather events which are changing the way we grow and consume food.

In 2015, South Africa became a net food importer for the first time. This means that we cannot produce enough food to sustain our population. The root cause was the drought which was caused by El Nino with climate change being cited as a contributor.

South Africa had to import white maize, a staple food for most South Africans. White maize prices have risen by 40%. Not good news for poorer households which spend 55-75% of their total income on food. One only has to look to the 2010 Tunisian bread riots which were a catalyst for the Arab Spring to imagine the impact on both food and national security.

The Tunisian bread riots are a prime example of how climate change can impact the global food system.

Extreme rain falls in Canada, a severe drought in Eastern Europe and wild fires in Russia resulted in a global wheat shortage, causing Russia to block all wheat exports. The same happened in China and Argentina and Australia. This caused a scarcity in Tunisia, which saw people take to the streets in protest.

The protests were for other political reasons, but hunger is often the last straw for already dissatisfied citizens. With climate change impacting food production globally, South Africa needs to think about how to ensure food security locally.

In 2015, WWF conducted research across the value chain to look at the degree of awareness of climate change there was, what the chain was doing about it, and what the risks were.

In order to cope with climate change impacts on food, farmers are investing in different adaptation strategies – such as diversifying their crops, increasing their hectares and expensive technology like hail nets which can cost up to R300 000 per hectare or hydroponic systems which can cost up to R60 million.

They also invest in precision farming which means better water and resources management. Insurers are insisting in crop protection technology, which adds to the expense of food production. In some cases, farmers can simply not afford crop insurance. There are already no-go insurance areas like the North West Province due to drought. The agricultural insurance market is also shrinking, and insurers are looking for markets outside of South Africa.

A large outcome of the research revealed that the resilience of the food value chain depended on the level of resilience of farmers, and that the further away from the farmer, the more buffered the rest of the chain felt.

There was no sense of collective risk with each section of the chain looking after its own interests. Retailers acknowledged that as food becomes scarcer, they will only be able to absorb a certain level of product cost increase before passing it on to the consumer.

The complexity of these issues might seem insurmountable to you at the end of the check-out till. But we can change our living patterns to a more low carbon lifestyle.

How to act:

  • Plan your meals to avoid waste, and excessive trips to the store
  • Avoid imported food. Buy Local.
  • Support local farmers markets, organic box schemes.
  • Grow your own veggies to supplement your grocery budget.
  • Avoid two for the price of one specials which can go off in your fridge
  • Buy in season produce.
  • Embrace imperfect fruit and veg, like we did in the old days.
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