South Africans should not be concerned about the availability of food during the current Covid-19 pandemic. This assurance has been given by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP), a Pretoria/Tshwane-based nonprofit organisation (created in 2004 to carry out scientifically rigorous and unbiased research relevant to the agriculture sector).
“Global food supply chains and food consumption patterns are already affected, but our view is that there is no reason for immediate concern. Empty food shelves in parts of the country reflect panicky consumer stockpiling and not disrupted food supply chains,” its new report, Impact of Covid-19: South Africa has sufficient food supplies, states. “Overall, South Africa is a surplus producer of food and the value of South Africa’s food exports exceeds imports by a significant margin.”
South Africa’s major food and agricultural imports were (from most to least valuable, in rand terms) rice, poultry, wheat and meslin (which is a mixture of wheat and rye), sugar, palm oil, undenatured ethyl alcohol, leather products, food preparations (not elsewhere specified), beer, soybean oilcake, animal feed preparations, sunflower oil and live cattle. The BFAP assured that the world market was well supplied with all food items.
“In terms of imports, the world market is well stocked in all of the food items and any potential periodic shortfalls will mainly arise due to logistical disruptions caused by lockdowns and restrictions on the movement of goods,” said the BFAP. “This would only be the case for the specific food items that are typically imported from affected regions in the world market.”
In terms of individual countries, the main sources of South African food and agricultural imports were China, Thailand, Brazil, eSwatini and Argentina. However, the products supplied by China were mainly leather products, animal by-products and textiles, which are of limited concern in terms of food supplies. Thailand provided rice, Brazil mainly supplied poultry meat, eSwatini sugar and Argentina soybean oilcake (for animal feed).
As a bloc, however, the biggest source of South African food and agricultural imports was the European Union (EU). And Europe was now the centre of the Covid-19 outbreak. South Africa’s main food and agricultural import from the EU was wheat, followed by undenatured ethyl alcohol, sunflower oil, food preparations and poultry meat.
There were, however, alternative sources of wheat, such as the US. And South Africa’s 2020 maize crop was expected to be the secondlargest ever recorded, at a forecast 15.5-million tons (9.1-million tons of white maize). Each year, South Africans consume some 5.4-million tons and their animals another 5.8-million tons, meaning there would be a significant surplus this year, allowing for exports to neighbouring countries.
Thailand, which had not yet suffered as severely from Covid-19 as China or Europe, was South Africa’s main source of rice. “Even in a scenario where global supply chains disrupt the consistency of rice and wheat imports over the medium term, S[outh] A[frica] will have sufficient staple white maize to accommodate a relative shift out of rice and wheat to maize,” assured the BFAP.
However, South Africa also exported agricultural products. “On the export side, potential disruptions because of logistical problems or restrictions on the movement of goods will have a negative economic impact on South African producers, agribusinesses and exporters,” it warned. “Agribusinesses will possibly face lower prices when products destined for export are diverted into the local market.”
Such diversion from export to local markets could benefit local consumers. It could create temporary and seasonal surpluses, resulting in lower prices in the domestic market. However, the scale of the impact of such a development would vary from foodstuff to foodstuff.