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October 19, 2008

South African farmers group says government has "obsession with the social responsibility of agriculture"

For the first time in its history, South Africa has become a net importer of food by value. Exports rose almost 19% to R33,7bn in the year to March - but the food import bill jumped 41% to R34bn. The loss of the country´s traditional status as a food exporter should be blamed on government's obsession with the "social responsibility" of agriculture, Agri-SA president Lourie Bosman told the organisation's annual congress in Johannesburg last week.

Bosman blames government's preoccupation with managing transformation, instead of helping commercial farmers to be competitive in global markets. "This, with the uncertainty caused by land reform, but also deficiencies in the management of land transfers, has contributed significantly to a systematic regression in agriculture's production capacity."

Others have levelled similar accusations at government. Dissatisfaction with the management of land transfer was the theme of a report by the Centre for Development & Enterprise (CDE) earlier this year. The report said that in spite of government's intention that 30% of commercial agricultural land should be owned by blacks by 2014, land redistribution to black owners had increased marginally, from 4,3% to 4,7%, in the past three years.

That report also detailed government's failure to provide much-needed support for beneficiaries of the policy. In many instances formerly productive farming operations have simply ceased.
Bosman praises the "sound framework" of government's formal strategic plan for agriculture - but argues that "generalised misrepresentations [about the farming community] have seriously hampered co-operation by willing farmers and contributed to the polarisation of attitudes."

He says the alarming loss of commercial farmers - from about 65 000 in 1990 to fewer than 40 000 now - can be blamed on these conditions, in combination with the free trade protocol of the Southern African Development Community. There are already opportunities for farmers within the region, and agriculture-unfriendly policies have been a further stimulus for the emigration of agricultural entrepreneurship and capital.

Bosman stresses that the loss of local farmers entails more than the loss of their expertise, along with an increasing reliance on expensive imported food and the loss of foreign exchange. He says the exodus also contributes to the deterioration of rural communities due to fewer job opportunities; declining buying power, with the related effects on businesses; social deterioration; and a decline in rural infrastructure and service delivery in education, training, sport and recreation.

Though expressing appreciation for government's work through the Agricultural Trade Forum, Bosman said there should be a policy "that creates a balance between food affordability and the merits of neutralising the impact of unfair, government-subsidised import competition with appropriate import tariffs. "Surely it is not unreasonable to ask for adequate protection against subsidised competition. By not providing such protection, government discourages investment in local production which could have contributed to improved food security, job creation, rural development and even exports," he said. He suggested that delays in implementing policies again showed that "perceived social benefits" enjoyed priority over economic development.

Agriculture minister Lulu Xingwana was at the congress. She recommitted her department to supporting increased food production and facilitating investment in agriculture. She said good progress was being made in coming to an arrangement with the fertiliser industry about prices. The tripling of fertiliser prices worldwide has been one of the input costs pushing up food prices.



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