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Food security must never be taken for granted. It has to be sustained constantly. Favourable geographical conditions, good farming skills, adequate infrastructure and sound government policy must all be in place.

Yet SA may well face problems in preserving food security — and actual widespread food insecurity — due largely to local protectionism. Take poultry, for instance. On top of inflationary increases, import tariffs have hiked the price of chicken, traditionally SA’s most affordable protein. 

In November last year, Agricultural Business Chamber of SA chief economist Wandile Sihlobo wrote in a blog: “The key message is that SA is in a better place regarding food security, and leading the continent. This does not mean there should be complacency. SA will need to continue improving food security through expansion in agricultural production and job creation in various sectors of the economy.” 

One of SA’s National Development Plan (NDP) chapter II social protection objectives is to “identify the main elements of a comprehensive food security and nutrition strategy and launch a campaign”. The NDP also points to the importance of realising a food trade surplus with a third produced by small-scale farmers or households, and of ensuring household food and nutrition security.

The country has only seven years to realise the goals of the NPD, or at the very least put them in motion. Unfortunately, we are already some way behind, though we could still attain the goals with the necessary policy changes and practical, pro-consumer decisions. 

Food insecurity has already become an entrenched reality, especially in poor and vulnerable communities. Higher fuel prices, stickier inflation and political instability as we head for the 2024 general election, increased load-shedding and heavier crime, mean consumers face greater difficulties than ever in feeding themselves properly.

Any shortage of a staple source of protein for the poor, specifically chicken, presents a problem that must be addressed urgently. In December, the country had a shortage of the bone-in chicken pieces used in the quick service industry. Bone-in chicken, or dark meat, is SA’s most popular cut, while in the US and EU white meat is preferred. The shortage arose from import tariffs, such as the 62% general duty from March 2020. Trade barriers that hinder protein imports must be a focus for trade policy.

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, commonly known as bird flu, as well as African Swine Fever, have hindered SA access to export markets for years. The government has unfortunately been slow to recognise other countries’ regionalisation or compartmental farming, yet expects neighbouring countries to accept our regionalisation or compartmental farming. 

The Poultry Industry Master Plan recognised that should local producers resume exports into the EU market the country would see a 30% drop in domestic bone-in poultry supplies over the three years of the plan, which was developed between the government and industry stakeholders. To date, bone-in cuts have fallen 54%. Local poultry producers are still not even exporting into the bigger European markets. 

Local farmers in the red meat industry now also face vaccine issues, because the state facility responsible for manufacturing vaccines is not producing enough, mainly due to load-shedding. If the livestock industry does not get vaccines there will be no meat supplied to abattoirs, and therefore no production. Ultimately, without trade policy intervention this could mean little or no meat for SA consumers. 

Food security cannot be sustained in a protectionist trade environment. Competition breeds excellence. Good governance and control are, of course, key in regulating importers and exporters. Rather than adopt short-term, protectionist positions we should take a more collaborative and productive view for the ultimate good of consumers and to ensure food security over the longer term. 

• Matthew is CEO of the Association of Meat Importers & Exporters. 

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