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The Challenge of Food Security Amidst COVID-19 and Climate Change

By June 24, 2020 June 26th, 2020 No Comments
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As COVID-19 cases in South Africa surge past the 100,000 mark, the discourse on food and hunger is becoming louder and more agitated by the day. The growing dissonance shows up fragmented responses, dismal ineptitude at efficient collaboration and a concerning lack of agility. The extent of the cacophony is such that the right to provide food to people in need, and the right of children to receive food have already led to at least three court cases. How can this story be changed to one where South Africa works together to prevent and alleviate hunger and food insecurity?  

This is part one of a 3-part blog on food security in the time of COVID-19 and climate change. We are juxtaposing recent developments against our rich treasure of scenarios that have created a vision for South Africa throughout the journey towards and into democracy. These scenarios remind us of the best possible dreams for the country and could give hope for the future. They provide a common thread that could pull us through the current challenges. At the same time the scenarios we have reviewed also provide valuable insights into what could prevent South Africa from taking the best possible course.

Food, politics and the courts

Three months into the COVID-19 crisis, Equal Education, and school governing bodies, represented by the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) and SECTION27 say that the rights of qualifying learners’ to basic nutrition, basic education and equality is violated by the failure of the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to find a way to continue the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) during the state of disaster1They want to compel the DBE to ensure that the programme continues while most children are not able to attend school. It is a sad statistic that for many of the 9 million children who benefitted from the NSNP before lockdown started on 26 March this year, the meal they received at school was the only daily meal they had access to. 

On 23 June, the Cape Town High Court had ruled2 that neither the National Department of Social Development nor the South African Police Service (SAPS) may prevent soup kitchens from operating during the COVID-19 national lockdown. This follows an interim ruling obtained by the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the 1000 Women Non-Government Organisation (NGO) from the same court that stated that “government cannot be allowed to prevent people from exercising their existing rights to distribute and receive food”.

The media spat about the case saw the NGO suggesting that government was attempting to centralise donations and tried to dictate to NGOs what to do, while the Minister emphasised that the intention of the government was to ensure that the necessary protocols were followed, and people’s dignity was protected, referring to chaotic scenes where people were jostling for food3

Earlier in May, the same court dismissed an application from the DA to prevent the Social Security Agency of South Africa (SASSA) from allegedly providing food parcels with the ANC at political events4

Food insecurity and hunger is not new but will grow

There has been a long-standing concern about what happens to children during school holidays, especially over the longer year-end period, when children are home for over five weeks.5 With the lockdown, this fault line, like many others, has been put under the spotlight. Why has this issue not been pushed to the top of the agenda earlier? Why have we never been concerned about millions of children going hungry in the summer school holidays and over the festive season, while food secure citizens in South Africa are able to indulge in the excesses of the festive season.    

The wrangling about who should provide food, and where and how it should be provided is taking place against a backdrop of an expected spike in food insecurity6, given chilling predictions of up to 4 million job losses as a result of COVID-19, the anticipated shrinking of the economy between 10% and 17%, and forecasts that the unemployment rate will soar to 35.31% by December 2020 (compared to an already high 28,70% in December 2019)7. Sadly, this means that, as the sun sets each day, more and more people, and children in particular, will go to bed hungry in South Africa. That is, unless decisive and urgent action is taken with the clear and sole intent to help the rapidly growing group of vulnerable persons in our country, and not to score political points. 

The severity of the crisis has been highlighted by Oxfam in a recent press release8: ”40 million people in Southern Africa are at risk of increased hunger and poverty due to the double threat of the coronavirus and consecutive climatic shocks…”. According to Oxfam, the 2019 drought has already rendered over 17 million people across Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and South Africa food insecure. 

Oxfam pointed out that food security is further threatened by the high number of people in sub-Saharan Africa (approximately 70%) who work in the informal sector. In South Africa, approximately 16% of people work in the informal sector, which means that they have “little or no employment benefits”. In addition, social stimulus packages do not necessarily include workers in the informal sector and other vulnerable groups like the over 4 million migrants and refugees in South Africa. 

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) identifies four dimensions to food security9.

 (Source: FAO) 

Already in 2017, South Africa was regarded as “food secure” at a national level, but food insecure at household level, because almost 20% of South African households had inadequate or severe inadequate access to food in 2017. Food security varied by province, household size, and population group of household head and by household size10:

  • Provinces reporting the lowest proportions of adequate food security were North West and Northern Cape.
  • Households headed by black Africans and coloureds were more likely to be food insecure.
  • Larger households were more at risk to have inadequate or severe inadequate access to food.
  • Households with no children or fewer children were more likely to have adequate access to food than those with many children.
  • In 2017, 6,8 million South Africans experienced hunger. The number has dropped from 13,5 million in 2002. 
  • With more than half a million households with children aged five years or younger experienced hunger in 2017, child hunger remains a problem in South Africa.

Hunger is a crisis, which demands action now

Hunger and food security should not be intellectualised or politicised. Hunger is real, and it is a crisis that cannot be ignored. According to Dr Tracy Ledger, a Research Associate in the Wits School of Social sciences, health data confirms that thousands of South African children are starving to death each year: “Tens of thousands of children under the age of five are admitted to hospital each year for severe acute malnutrition… About 1 500 to 2 000 of those children die in hospitals of starvation. Many more children in South Africa die out of the hospital than in hospital (up to 9 000) and the indirect effects of malnutrition are much higher…” 11 

To see this in context, consider that in the slightly more than three months since the first COVID-19 case in South Africa, approximately 2,000 people have died from the pandemic, something most of us are gravely concerned about.

Yet, in the “normal” pre-COVID 19 situation which we now idealise, we did not see a daily count of this tragedy. Media reports were few and far between, and for most of us, at least for the more privileged part of the population, this tragic situation remained on the periphery of our consciousness. COVID-19 and its devastating economic consequences will force us to acknowledge this crisis and do something about it. The number of people, including children, who will die from hunger, will unfortunately increase markedly unless decisive and quick action is taken.       

Economic hardship goes hand in hand with the food crisis

It is important to understand that South Africa is not alone in the fight against hunger. After decades of steady decline, world hunger has slowly been on the rise since 201512. The Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) “The State of Food  Security and Nutrition in the World report (2019)”13 connects rising hunger to economic downturns: “…economic shocks tend to be significant secondary and tertiary drivers that prolong and worsen the severity of food crises”, leading to increased employment and decreased wages and incomes, which in turn challenges to access to food, social services and healthcare.

Climate change is a threat to the entire food system 

Climate change is another threat to food security. Already in 2008, the FAO has alerted that climate change will affect food security through its impacts on all components of food systems, at a local, national and global level. “Climate change is real, and its first impacts are already being felt. It will first affect the people and food systems that are already vulnerable, but over time the geographic distribution of risk and vulnerability is likely to shift. Certain livelihood groups need immediate support, but everybody is at risk.”14

One thing that COVID-19 crisis has highlighted is the connectedness of systems, and how changes at one level of a system affect other levels of a system; or how changes in one system affects other related systems. For example, food may be available in the broader food system, but children may not have sustained access to nutritious food, despite having the NSNP in place, when the school calendar is interrupted. 

FAO quoteDecisive and comprehensive solutions are required

This, taken together with the inevitable economic hardship and increased food insecurity that is emerging in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, should be a wake-up call to unite against this threat and to put selfish and political agendas aside. No child should die of hunger, and no household should be food insecure. 

Food security requires collaboration between different systems and across different levels of the system, as well as between different actors, i.e. government, civil society, the private sector, philanthropists and other funders. The problem is much too complex and too vast for any one actor to presume that they could tackle the problem on their own.  

Court cases on food parcels, feeding schemes and nutritional programmes show a lack of common purpose and action despite the opportunities provided by the current extraordinary situation for different actors to unite around a common purpose in the interest of the greater good of society. This is one of the opportunities in the crisis we should be embracing to co-create a different and a better society especially for the vulnerable and marginalised, who are easily overlooked.

By Fia van Rensburg

[1] Basic Education: Court bids to prevent school reopening pile up

[2] SABC News Facebook

[3] News 24: COVID-19 soup kitchens can no longer be policed or controlled court says

[4] DA to appeal ‘food parcels’ court ruling – The Mail & Guardian

[5] Op-Ed: How South Africa can feed its hungry children during the lockdown

[6] Covid-19: B4SA foresees up to 4 million job losses

[7] South Africa Forecast: Unemployment Rate [1980 – 2020] [Data & Charts]

[8] Coronavirus could increase hunger for over 40m in Southern Africa

[9] An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Food Security

[10] The Extent of Food Security in South Africa

[11] 2017-06 – Ten to 20 South African children die of starvation every day

[12] UN – Issues Depth Food

[13] SOFI 2019

[14] FAO