An African Centre for Food Security’s short course held on the Pietermaritzburg campus recently opened with an address by Professor Albert Modi, Dean and Head of the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Titled: “Understanding Food Insecurity”, Modi said it was an honour to welcome food security practitioners from southern Africa to UKZN. He said the African Centre for Food Security (ACFS) was an important programme of the School which over the years had trained Postgraduate Diploma, Honours, Masters and PhD students from South Africa and other SADC countries. ‘It is very pleasing for us that the ACFS Director, Professor Ayalneh Bogale and his team, have placed the Centre on the African and global map.’

Modi said UKZN had a mission of being a centre of excellence for global education and solutions to African problems.

He explained that one of the problems affecting South Africa, Southern Africa and South East Asia was hunger which he defined in the context of energy-protein deficiency and vitamin-mineral deficiency. ‘Lack of access to one or both of these is food insecurity,’ said Modi.

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), South Africa ranked 40th out of 105 countries in a Global Food Security Index which placed the US in the top spot and the Democratic Republic of Congo at the bottom. The index, conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, found that countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia were the most vulnerable to high food prices.

IFPRI argued that low food prices could also cause food insecurity, especially in low income agrarian economies. Low prices depressed smallholder farmers' incomes, disrupting their ability to produce food, and were a disincentive to produce. According to the index, economic activity in rural areas could be tied in some way to farming, and low income for farmers meant low income for all.

Sudden price changes and price shocks could force poor consumers and suppliers to sell important assets at low prices to maintain short-term food security. In the longer term, this kept families in poverty.

According to United Nations’ statistics, cited in the index, global food production needed to rise by 50 percent by 2030 to meet demand.

Modi said the average adult needed 2 300 calories a day to lead a healthy and active life. sub-Saharan Africa was the only region where the average food supply was below the daily adult requirement.

A lack of food correlated with a substantial deterioration of democratic institutions in low-income countries, as well as a rise in communal violence, riots, human rights abuses and civil conflict.

He advocated a number of approaches to solving food insecurity, including broad-based agricultural and rural development; sound public policies; and greater public investment in agricultural research and sustainable management of natural resources.

‘At UKZN, the ACFS is appropriately located in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences, within the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science,’ said Modi. ‘The expectation is that efforts to address food insecurity will be underpinned by sound basic and applied sciences. Relevant Social Science will be used to make relevant research hypotheses and correct interpretations of outcomes that will have meaningful and measurable effects on poor people and funders.’ 

Modi said the Centre emphasised indigenous knowledge to encourage a situation where targeted communities were respected as both participants and beneficiaries in research and community engagement efforts.

‘That way, we shall avoid top-down approaches which are not sustainable financially and environmentally. We also seek to influence government policy through our approaches to research, teaching and community engagements.’

author email : frosts@ukzn.ac.za