Many say that due to Covid-19, life as we know it might have changed for good. But will it be a change for the better? Can we afford to have gone through this crisis, suffered its severe impact in all areas of life and not learn from it? Agriculture in South Africa was under pressure before the virus reached our shores, but what does it look like now and do we have a plan?
During lockdown, agriculture was considered an essential service and food production was exempt from many of the restrictions on production and trade. That doesn’t mean that the pandemic didn’t have a negative effect on this industry as well. There were definite shortages in both the local and export markets, some irrational regulations affected the industry even more negatively and agricultural products such as flowers and wine were hard hit due to restrictions on transport and trade. With the Western Cape being home to 98% of South Africa’s wineries and responsible for 45% of South Africa’s agricultural export products, there was a drastic impact on the local economy.
I listened to Western Cape Minister of Agriculture, Dr Ivan Meyer introducing some of the key points of the long term (fifty year) strategy for agriculture in the Western Cape. (Click here to listen) The focus sounds like what we need and although we know from experience that the plan and the execution can be two different things, having a good strategy is the first step in the right direction. Let’s have a look at his five ministerial priorities and a few of my interpretations.
- Research, Development and Training
Agriculture is an industry that can be supported by research and to farm successfully, we need to do away with guess work. Information and technology are available. We have used technology to pinpoint the best terroir for specific varieties, to ensure we conserve energy and employ sustainable practices in farming and winemaking. Getting access to research and technology can be expensive, but with government support it can enable optimal production. Dr Meyer emphasised the importance of training and development when it comes to agricultural workers. More agriculture subjects and schools can feed an existing industry and its employment opportunities. Educated and well-trained workers are currently lacking in the industry and can make a significant contribution to productivity, but also the economies and social welfare of small rural communities. When workers in agriculture are educated, we will have people who want to build and develop.
- Continuous support to the agricultural community
There are 16 000 farmers in the Western Cape. They make an 11% contribution to the gross national product of the Western Cape. Farming communities, farmers, producers and workers deserve better government support – especially in the post Covid-19 environment.
- Rural safety is critical
Safety is one of those basic prerequisites without which it is hard to be productive. People have to feel safe and secure to perform, to invest, to be innovative. A ministerial rural safety committee headed by Dr. Meyer focuses on this critical issue. Crime is a challenge in South Africa. One that threatens not only the safety of our people, but also the success of our economy. There might be historical explanations and psychological reasons for the exceptional crime rate in South Africa, but the truth is that it hurts all of us and it has to be a government priority.
- Climate Change
Climate change affects us all, but farmers who rely on nature for production, might be more aware of its impact. We need to use innovation and available technology to take on the challenges of climate change. We need a holistic approach and we need to take responsibility.
- Global market access for agricultural products
We’ve seen critical shortages in exports this year due to a lack of markets. South Africa is an important global player when it comes to agriculture produce. We are the second biggest producer of citrus fruit and the 9th biggest in terms of citrus for export per volume in the world. Not having sufficient access to international markets is a serious concern and government has to facilitate this process – in Europa, the East and USA. Free trade agreements have been a regular topic of my blogs in the past, just because we can see what a difference it makes and the preferential market access it brings. The Africa Free Trade agreement, for instance, see 50% of our South African agricultural export produce going to the 1 billion people in Africa.
The South African wine industry know what it is to fight for market place and brand perception. A lot of damage has been done due to the restrictions on trade and wine production, but we have to find ways to work together and keep our brands alive. We need our wines to be available. We can’t afford to lose listings. To ensure this, all the sectors have to work together. Cooperation has never been so important! The survival of each establishment is to the benefit of all. Bigger brands have to support smaller ones and some government support wouldn’t hurt either.