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Food security at risk as load shedding takes its toll, says Agri SA

Food security at risk as load shedding takes its toll, says Agri SA

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Food security is at risk with the continuous load shedding, warns Christo van der Rheede, Agri SA’s executive director.

Load shedding was escalating as South Africa enters the summer crop-planting season, which might have implications for food security into the coming year, unless farmers could put measures in place to mitigate its effects, he said.

The agricultural organisation has written to Eskom CEO André de Ruyter requesting an urgent engagement on the outlook for load shedding in the coming weeks.

Van der Rheede said electricity was a key agricultural input.

“According to Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development statistics, the agricultural sector spent approximately R9 billion on electricity in 2021. This is more than 7% of the sector’s expenditure on intermediate goods and services. A reliable power supply is especially critical for the sector’s irrigation and water treatment (systems).”

The consequences of load shedding for the different agricultural commodities were far-reaching, with potentially devastating outcomes.

Moreover, he said the impact of load shedding extended beyond simply rolling blackouts.

“It usually takes up to an hour to resume irrigation systems when load shedding ends, costing farmers time and incurring additional labour costs. Blackouts also disrupt cooling and packing, with ramifications for food quality, and they pose a health hazard for humans and animals alike, as they disrupt access to clean water for consumption and stop wastewater treatment,” Van der Rheede said.

For export commodities, the consequences included disruptions to cold-chain protocols mandated by foreign markets and late shipments. These outcomes would diminish South Africa’s standing as a reliable source market.

“Ultimately, the greatest threat from load shedding is to the country’s food security. As crops fail for lack of irrigation, or farmers plant less for fear of losses, the country will only experience the consequences of load shedding in the future as the produce anticipated from this summer’s crop fails to materialise. The result will be food shortages and high prices,” he said.

High prices would be onerous for South Africa’s cash -strapped consumers, who already face high food prices.

Last month the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity group recorded the average cost of its Household Food Basket for at R4775.59. Month-on-month, the average cost of the basket increased by R26.72 (0.6%), while year-on-year, the basket increased by as much as 12.6% or R534.47.

Agri SA said it was aware of the recent announcement that Eskom would approach the market to procure 1000MW, but added that farmers needed to know what the plan was beyond this initial attempt to stabilise the grid, so that they could plan for the season ahead.

Van der Rheede said that, given the magnitude of what was at stake, Agri SA had approached Eskom for engagement in order to understand the current challenges and gain some insight into the outlook for the year, so the sector could make plans to mitigate the risks, protecting both food consumers and producers.

“We trust that the power utility and the government will work with us to avert a food security crisis in addition to the ongoing power crisis,” he said.

Last month, financial services company Santam said regular load shedding was wreaking havoc in South Africa’s agricultural sector, with farmers bracing themselves for the impact of ongoing interrupted power on production schedules, revenue, sensitive electronic equipment and crime.

The insurer said the agricultural sectors most affected by load shedding would be dairy farms that were highly mechanised, with electricity required for most of the production processes, including milking machines and milk cooling. Milking was usually scheduled for the early morning and late afternoon – times which coincide with periods of intense load shedding.

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