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Food prices to soar due to drought

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The severe water shortages that have left many local farmers in dire straits is more than likely to have a knock-on effect on food prices, according to Imraan Mukkadam, co-ordinating member of the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign (SAFSC). The country has been hit by a crippling drought due to a weather phenomenon known as El Nino, which raises surface temperatures in parts of the Pacific Ocean. This has led to reductions in the production of basic food sources like maize, as well as water shortages in sections of the country.

While critical of the fact that the South African government were effectively “caught napping” about the probability of a water crisis, and the effects this would have on the agricultural industry, a more pressing concern for Mukkadam was the possibility that corporate monopolies will exploit the situation to push food prices up.

“We need our government to step in and support vulnerable consumers that will be at the receiving end of the price spiral that we anticipate, and that has already started happening,” he said, accusing such companies of making excessive profits off the back of the desperate consumer.

Mukkadam suggested such corporate heavyweights were prone to and had a history of profiteering and price fixing, raising fears they could attempt to exploit the drought and pile extra costs on the South African public.

“The food system is concentrated in the hands of a few, and is not very accessible to emerging producers and farmers. Because we have corporate retailers controlling over 60% of market share, they have the opportunity to exploit any vulnerability on the side of consumers,” he suggested.

Also contributing to the likely price hikes are government import duties on products like wheat. Government has sought to protect local producers from imports through the imposing of tariffs. But with seemingly no end in sight for the drought, imported products are expected to increase in demand which in turn will push up prices.

“More and more wheat and maize will have to be imported. If on top of the drought and increased demand you add import tariffs in a state of crisis you are shooting yourself in the foot,” Mukkadam stated.

According to disaster management advisor at AgriSA, Koos Van Zyl, the drought is one of the worst in recent memory and has proven particular detrimental to farmers heavily reliant on rain water as a means of sustaining their crops.

Van Zyl said several provinces have been declared agricultural disaster zones, namely the Free State, KwaZulu Natal and North West. Mpumalanga and Limpopo are also expected to be declared as such, while question marks are also hanging over Gauteng and the Northern Cape.

“I think in the end we will have seven of the nine provinces declared as drought stricken areas, so it is almost the whole country. Only the Western Cape and Eastern Cape have not been affected by the drought,” he explained.

While the drought has affected the farming industry more than most, Van Zyl stressed that the situation would be of detriment to the broader population as well as the country’s economy, as food shortages and price hikes became more prevalent.

While the country has around two million tonnes of maize in reserve, this is viewed as not nearly sufficient to carry on to the next season for farmers, which would start in September 2016.

“According to the weather bureau and reports that are coming in they don’t foresee that we will have rain before January or February. Then it is too late because you want to plant maize at the end of December. For the eastern part of the country the cut-off date is much earlier, around the end of November,” he said, noting that if no rain fell within the next few weeks farmers would not be able to plant maize this season.

Van Zyl said South Africa, the continents biggest producer of white maize, would now have to import the product from countries like Mexico and Zambia.

“It will definitely effect the consumer…the price of maize will be much higher than we are used to in the country,” he conceded, estimating increases of around 30% to 40%.

The South African Food Sovereignty Campaign has called on government to put pressure on the international bodies at the upcoming COP21 Climate Conference in Paris to work towards a more stringent greenhouse emissions regime in order to address the drought at its source, which is climate change.VOC (Mubeen Banderker)

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