Sufficient capacity for the ARC equates to food security in SA

Policy-making is an evolving and dynamic process in order to ensure that the policies put in place are robust and agile enough to respond appropriately to current and future needs. There are two focal points for policy reforms in the land and agricultural sectors: those dealing in the main with issues pertaining to land, and those dealing with issues pertaining to the overall productivity and efficiency of the agricultural sector (production of food, fibre, and energy). 

One of the key institutions dealing with research and technology creation and adoption in the agriculture sector, supporting what is a critical area of the economy, is the Agricultural Research Council (ARC). The Agricultural Research Act 86 of 1990 (as amended by Act 27 of 2001) governs the ARC, which is the principal agricultural research institution in South Africa. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown without a doubt the need for a capable state, with the ability to make informed and effective decisions based on superior knowledge and access to accurate and timely information. At the heart of South Africa’s reaction to Covid-19 has been the pooling of resources of state, public, private and even international bodies and experiences to provide an informed, scientific response to an emergency facing not only the country, but also the whole world.

South Africa’s world-class capacity in health, heath management, academia and research, spread across such institutions as Medical Research Council (MRC), South African Medical Association, Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and various academic hospitals is undoubtedly the main reason why the country has been able to deal fairly effectively with the Covid-19 pandemic.

What makes a nation food secure, and what are the critical factors that keep a nation in a state of being food secure?

Despite South Africa not being endowed with the best agro-climatic and physical resources and being water scarce, its agriculture is renowned and is leading in many spheres. Of critical importance is the fact that South Africa is one of the world’s few net exporters of food and at a national level has remained “food secure”. The notion of a nation that is food secure is frequently misunderstood and is therefore often misinterpreted, with potentially disastrous consequences. 

What makes a nation food secure, and what are the critical factors that keep a nation in a state of being food secure? The answer is a complex one and a short article such as this will not do it justice, but informed research shows that nations that invest in research stay ahead of the curve, and the returns from research far outweigh the costs.

Unfortunately, the level of investment in research in general and in agricultural research in particular have been dropping at alarming rates over the past few decades. For example, in 2017, the country’s gross expenditure on research and development was estimated at R32.3-billion and agriculture only accounted for a meagre 8% of this. More concerning is that despite South Africa’s commitment under the Maputo Declaration to maintain its overall spend on both agriculture (5% – 10% of total GDP) and to agricultural research, this has not been met. 

The consequence has been quite severe on retaining both the capacity and excellence of the ARC, whose contribution to ensuring that South Africa’s national food secure status is undisputed. The ARC operates 17 research campuses that cover the breadth and range of the agricultural sector. It has since its establishment provided the South African agricultural sector with excellent agricultural research interventions and solutions. This has supported the grains, livestock, horticultural and fruit industries in a manner that has ensured South African farmers and those in the multitude of agricultural value chains can feed the nation, provide critical jobs and livelihoods, and help to grow the economy.

The continued weakening of the status and role of the ARC threatens the core of the country’s capacity to provide food, fibre, and energy to its people and to retain its food secure status. A recent example was the recent outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in Limpopo province, which caused the government to lock down the movement of cloven-hooved animals. At a conservative estimate this cost the country’s fiscus R5-billion, excluding the opportunity to provide exports and the sunk cost of regaining market share. While efforts are well underway to create capacity to provide FMD vaccines through the ARC, this lost capacity and the challenge of rebuilding illustrates why it should never have been lost in the first place.

The dangers of Rift Valley Fever, Swine Flu, Bird Flu and a whole series of fast spreading and highly infectious diseases are always just around the corner in the livestock sector. In the crops sector, the ARC provides leading research and technologies to mitigate for such interventions. Reduced funding leads to reduced capacity to develop strains and genotypes of varieties of drought-resistant maize seed recently launched by the ARC, and for the demand in the rest of Africa for non-GMO wheat varieties, to reduce the need for imports. Seedless grapes are in huge demand overseas, as are new soft citrus varieties. The ARC leads with these capabilities, but at a rapidly diminishing rate — a loss for South Africa Inc.

Lost capacity reduces South Africa’s ability to remain at the forefront of the fast-changing agricultural technologies and its ability to sustain the sector amid climate change, environmental challenges, and a growing human population. A unit of the ARC provides more weather-based stations and information to guide SA Weather Services and the intelligence about the state of the country’s water resources than any other institution in country.

The state contributes less than R2-billion a year to maintain the ARC as a key capacity. The amount of support that the state provides is matched by the private sector, typically on a one- to-one basis. This means that every R1 reduction in support also leads to a R1 loss in private sector support, a significant and reinforcing downward spiral. 

The opportunity cost of not adequately funding and supporting institutions such as the ARC far outweighs to cost of doing so. It is important to have a broader view of agriculture’s contribution to the South African economy, other than merely its contribution to the GDP. Agriculture has multiple backward and forward linkages in the economy, and must be viewed as an important economic sector as well as an enabler. 

Agriculture plays a vital role in employment creation, poverty alleviation and addressing inequality in the South African society. At the heart of agriculture’s crucial role in the South African economy is research and development. It is an imperative that the country remains at the cutting edge of technological advancement in agriculture to sustain the nation’s competitiveness, and to achieve and maintain food security.

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