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Picture: 123RF/KADMY
Picture: 123RF/KADMY

As the year draws to a close, it is worth reflecting on critical events that dominated the SA agricultural scene in 2023. Three stood out. 

Intense, persistent load-shedding from the start of the year was a big challenge for agriculture and agribusinesses. The effect is apparent considering all SA’s horticulture — fruits and vegetables — depend on irrigation, which needs an adequate power supply. In field crops, almost a third are produced under irrigation. In red meat, poultry, piggery, wool and dairy production, electricity is also used heavily across various processing activities.

Agribusinesses and other food producing businesses faced similar challenges in downstream processing activities, such as milling, bakeries, abattoirs, wine processing, packaging and animal vaccine production.

In the first quarter, the economic effect of load-shedding was felt across the food, fibre and beverages value chains. Farmers and businesses searched for capital to invest in their own energy generation, and some experienced losses in their stock.

The department of agriculture, land reform & rural development, Eskom management and organised agriculture formed an agricultural national energy task team, which introduced interventions to ease the load-shedding burden on farms such as load curtailment, expansion of the diesel rebate to the food value chain, and the Agro Energy Fund.

Biosecurity breaches

Through these efforts and heavy investment in renewables and other own energy generation measures, SA agriculture, with the food, fibre and beverage value chains, managed to minimise the damage of load-shedding and ensured a consistent supply of high-quality food for consumers. 

The weaknesses of SA’s biosecurity system — its ability to control the spread of animal disease — were a dominant challenge in 2023. Biosecurity breaches are not unique to SA and have become a big challenge globally. We frequently hear of foot and mouth disease in cattle, African swine fever in pigs and avian influenza in poultry worldwide. However, few countries have had to deal with the scale of these disease outbreaks almost simultaneously in the way SA has had to. 

In 2022, six provinces reported foot and mouth disease outbreaks. By the start of 2023 the conditions hadn’t changed much as we continued to see cases throughout the year. At the end of 2022 we learnt of outbreaks of African swine fever, which put the pig industry under additional pressure. This remains an ongoing challenge.

Most recently, the focus has been on avian influenza, with more than 100 commercial poultry facilities reporting cases. There have been big losses in parent stock for breeders of layers and broilers, thus leading to imports of fertilised eggs to rebuild the parent stock flock.

Port congestion

Biosecurity breaches revealed by the rash of recent disease outbreaks signal serious capacity challenges in farm biosecurity measures and the country’s veterinary and related support services. This is mainly in the laboratories, control of the movement of livestock and vaccine production. The government, organised agriculture and industry bodies will have to work closely together to address these biosecurity challenges. 

The congestion at SA’s ports is another issue that has dominated conversations, especially in the last quarter of the year. For the first three quarters, the agricultural sector successfully collaborated with Transnet to keep exports flowing to markets. SA’s agricultural exports amounted to $10.2bn in the first nine months, 1% up on the same period in 2022. However, the last quarter’s exports are at risk, mainly deciduous fruits and table grapes and wines in the Port of Cape Town, which is typically busy with agricultural exports this time of the year compared with other ports.

Overall, while there were numerous other challenges in the sector. But these three points were perhaps the most notable, cutting across each commodity and its value chain.

• Sihlobo is chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of SA and a senior fellow in Stellenbosch University’s department of agricultural economics.

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