The New Growth Path has identified agriculture as the most significant job creator up to 2020 - 445 000 jobs, compared to 140 000 in mining, 350 000 in manufacturing, and 275 000 in tourism and business services. However, the South African 'food regime' is structured in a way that systematically undermines agriculture in a number of ways.
Firstly, compared to other countries South Africa has the largest quantity of food sold to the public via supermarkets (around 70%) with the rest comprising sales through local markets, direct to the public by farmers and small fruit and veg shops. This means that the supermarkets enjoy enormous market leverage which they have used to keep the prices paid to farmers as low as possible. The markups made by the packing companies, transport companies and supermarkets are all included in the price that the consumer pays. What the farmer gets is a small fraction of the final price paid by the consumer. Christo Wiese, head of Shoprite Checkers, was reported in the press this last week to be critical of Walmart that is entering the SA market after buying Massmart. He argued that because Walmart will import cheap food from other countries, this will force all the other supermarkets to do the same thus undermining South Africa's agricultural sector. In other words, by allowing a globalised giant like Walmart into the SA economy, the SA government is effectively undermining its job creation target for the agricultural sector. But more importantly, local authorities that continue to approve development proposals for large shopping malls that require large supermarkets as anchor tenants are also undermining the agriculture job creation target. What local authorities should be doing is encouraging local markets so that farmers can sell directly to the public in order to acquire a greater share of the value chain. Secondly, SA only has 14 million hectares of arable land. Of this, 5 million hectares are degraded. This leaves 11 million hectares, or which a small proportion is high value land (much of which, incidentally, is located in Gauteng). According to the international norm, 0.4 hectares is required on average to feed a person. This means SA can feed nearly 28 million people which means food imports will be necessary. However, this could be increased if there was a national programme to improve soil health similar in scale to the nation-wide programmes introduced in China, Brazil and Cuba. Unfortunately, the restoration of our soils is not regarded as a priority which is very strange given the optimism about the number of jobs that will be created in agriculture. To make matters worse, the over-supermarketisation of SA's food regime which places downward pressures on prices paid to farmers exacerbates soil degradation because farmers are forced to mine soil nutrients to survive financially instead of having sufficient revenues to sustain their families as well as their soils by investing in the various measures available to improve soil health. What South Africa needs to do is take seriously the global consensus reflected in the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development which argued that agricultural production can only improve if farmers and those who support them start working with rather than against nature. Funded by mainstream organisations like the World Bank, UNDP, FOA and UNEP, this report was highly critical of chemical intensive farming practices that ignore ecological realities like climate change, water shortages, erosion, salinisation and groundwater pollution. This Report advocated the adoption of more sustainable agro-ecological practices that reduce dependence on high-cost external inputs, in particular oil-based chemical inputs which have become increasingly expensive as oil prices have steadily increased. Surprisingly, even though this report was launched in South Africa in 2008, very few people in the agricultural sector (both in government, the private sector and the research community) have actually bothered to read it. This is a major shortcoming because the science advocated by consensus in this Report may be exactly what the South African Government should be advocating if it is really serious about creating 445 000 agricultural jobs by 2010.