Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Belt tightening has become common practice for South African consumers who have, again, been accosted with steep food price increases. The situation is grim for homes but a bigger threat of food insecurity is lurking in the shadows.

When responding to food price increases, households adjust their consumption patterns in a number of ways by scrimping and saving. They decrease caloric intake at each meal, cut the number of meals per day, decrease the diversity of foods they consume, or substitute with less preferred foods. These temporary disruptions in access resulting from food inflation can result in nutritional damage, especially among infants and children.

Although SA is considered food secure at the national level, there is substantial food insecurity at the household level. More than half of South African households experience some form of food insecurity, and one quarter of SA’s children have experienced severe malnutrition. One of the biggest challenges for South African food security is persistent undernutrition, or "hidden hunger". This arises from diets lacking the quality and variety of foods necessary to meet nutritional requirements.

The typical South African diet is energy dense but micronutrient poor. Dietary diversity — the number of different food groups consumed in a reference period — is a good proxy for nutrient adequacy.

Data from Statistics SA’s income and expenditure surveys provides information on diet choices and how these change in response to food prices. The standardised precipitation evapotranspiration index is a measure of weather shocks that incorporates the role of temperature in drought severity in addition to rainfall. Using these data, it is possible to identify the effect of drought on diet through food prices.

Our findings show that dietary diversity differs between wealth groups. The poorest quarter of the population reports consuming an average of 15 food items and seven food groups. The wealthiest quarter consume 26 food items and nine food groups.

Food prices have a negative effect on household food security. A 1% rise in local food prices induced by the weather shocks over the past decade decreases the number of food items consumed by households by about 2.5% and the number of food groups by almost 1%. Low-income households are particularly vulnerable to these weather and price shocks and further reduce their already limited food baskets.

This increases the risk of "hidden hunger", especially for children. In contrast, food price shocks do not affect the food consumption patterns of the wealthiest households.

According to a recent report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, food security has deteriorated over the past few years in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Global hunger is rising and climate-related shocks are among the factors that have contributed to this reversal of trends. Climate change entails greater variability of rainfall and temperature and increased incidence of extreme events such as the recent drought in the Western Cape.

One of the main indirect channels through which climate-related shocks can undermine food security is the change in levels and volatility of food prices.

The potential effect of climate change on agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa has been well analysed. A consistent pattern emerges despite uncertainty in different projections and the underlying climate models. Although the lowest-income tropical countries are expected to incur the sharpest losses, yields for staple foods are expected to decline across Africa.

The effect of climate change on food security goes beyond food availability.

One of the main indirect channels through which climate-related shocks can undermine food security is the change in levels and volatility of food prices.

Since climate change is expected to bring about an increase in the incidence and intensity of weather shocks, policy makers should integrate all food security dimensions into their climate action plans. This should include the dimension of food utilisation that is often neglected in national food security strategies.

The recent experience of the Western Cape shows that such planning becomes all the more important in the face of the imperative to manage the problems arising from drought.

• Kubik is a senior researcher at the University of Paris’s Centre of Economics, Sorbonne and May is director of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape.