South Africa’s Minister for Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Thoko Didiza, published the much-awaited summer crop planting data for 2021/2022 on 28 January. The data measures the volume of summer crops planted by hectare and is seen as a reliable proxy for current growing conditions, winter harvests, and in some ways, food inflation and security. Summer crops – which include maize, sunflower seed, soybeans, groundnut, sorghum, and dry beans – are the bulk of staple foods. They are also key export commodities and often serve as inputs to myriad agricultural and manufacturing processes.
According to Didiza, the ministry has recorded 4.21 million hectares of new crops planted during the ongoing 2021/2022 agriculture season – 0.4% more than the plantings registered at the same period during the 2020/2021 season.
At face value, the increase in crop plantations appears insignificant; however, it is meaningful considering some of the concerns leading up to Didiza’s announcement. Farmers, economists, and meteorologists had expressed fear that record rainfall would deal a substantial blow to the agricultural sector. Indeed, the summer of 2021/2022 has, according to some experts, seen the highest levels of rainfall since 1928. In part, this is due to the La Nina weather phenomenon which typically brings above average rainfall; however, there is consensus among meteorologists that climate change has exacerbated the effects of La Nina.
Flooding in multiple regions of the country – including the agricultural hubs of Free State, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and Limpopo – prompted the government to declare a state of disaster on 20 January. The decree authorised emergency response mechanisms, including the release of additional funds for rescue, relief, and reconstruction efforts. For farmers, the worry was that excessive rain in the summer would significantly compromise growing conditions. Water runoffs, waterlogs and exceedingly high soil moisture content would not only cause damage to existing vegetation but may also force farmers to delay new plantations.
For now, it appears that South Africa has avoided the worst. On 28 January, the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz) noted that the data released by Didiza provides some comfort that plantings did not decline. However, it urged caution as this was early-stage data looking at only one component of the agricultural chain. Instead, Agibiz urged observers to await the release of the first production estimates by the ministry in late February. Not only will this provide new data on crop plantations, but it will also detail projections on the country’s harvest, taking into account factors that have emerged since the 28 January release.
The importance of this data cannot be understated. A negative outlook on crop production could lead to an acceleration of food inflation, at a time when price levels are escalating due to rising oil prices, global supply chain disruptions, and tight financing conditions.
More broadly, South Africa’s struggles with excessive rainfall are indicative of the climatological risks facing agricultural sectors across the continent. North of the equator, countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Somalia continue to struggle with drought. While in Southern Africa, countries such as Madagascar, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi have grappled with the dual incidence of drought and excess rainfall. Not only has this led to price instability and undermined output growth (given the preponderance of the agricultural sector in dozens of economies across the continent) but it has come with a significant humanitarian cost. Disruptions to the continent’s agricultural sectors – and the accompanying negative externalities – have also been exacerbated by conflict and coronavirus, with banditry in large parts of East Africa and West Africa and global hitches in the supply of inputs like fertiliser being of particular concern.
The United Nations estimates that food prices in Sub-Saharan Africa are now 30% to 40% higher than the rest of the world, when adjusting for GDP per capita. Furthermore, one in five people in the continent is under-nourished. The Cost of Hunger in Africa Study estimates that African countries are losing anywhere between 2% and 16% of their GDP due to child under-nutrition. With meteorologists warning that extreme weather events are likely to become more severe and frequent, agriculture on the continent will come under more significant pressure.
These issues have prompted the African Union (AU) to declare 2022 as the “Year of Nutrition”. The overall objective of the initiative is to secure greater political commitment and investment to address ongoing nutrition challenges. Among its strategies, the theme aims to enhance agricultural resistance to combat food insecurity. According to the AU, “Agriculture has a key role to play in nutrition-sensitive interventions”. Policy directives emanating from the initiative are expected to fall largely within the existing Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP).
‘Didiza pleased with SA summer crop planting’, SA News, 28 January 2022
‘South Africa’s heaviest rain on record causes destructive floods’, Engineering News, 25 January 2022
‘Seeds of concern: soaring fertiliser prices worsen African food woes’, Sunday Times, 31 January 2022
‘Tough, urgent choices for African leaders as they launch “Year of Nutrition” to help millions of people facing hunger’, Reliefweb, 02 February 2022
‘Triple blow for South Africans as food prices add to consumer burden’, Business Tech, 26 January 2022
‘2022: The Year of Nutrition’, African Union, 03 February 2022.
‘The African Union needs to integrate a food systems approach’, ECDPM, 03 February 2022.