Chicken Industry

Food security and domestic violence: chickens coming home to roost

Investment in agriculture seems wholly unrelated to violence against women and children. By simply connecting a few dots, however, a picture with food security at its centre emerges.

Food security, as defined by the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security, means that all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.

A year ago, in August 2018, Wandile Sihlobo published an article in which he quoted the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Global Food Security Index that ranked South Africa as the most food secure country in Africa. This, Sihlobo said, was directly attributable to the strong agricultural sector.

“…what differentiates [South Africa] from other countries is the high level of investment in the agricultural sector, which is largely driven by transparent markets, strong institutions and robust property rights,” he wrote.

In the 2018 index, South Africa still topped the African rankings, but it had slipped one place lower – 44th to 45th – in its overall placement.

Given Sihlobo’s explanation of South Africa’s relative food-secure status, recent developments, or rather lack thereof, in the chicken industry should sound a warning.

Transparent markets? Not when imported and dumped chicken has grown over the years to claim a market share bigger than any of our local producers.

Strong institutions? ITAC is taking a very long time to deal with SAPA’s application for a tariff that would protect the local industry against Brazilian dumping, while the monitoring and testing of imported chicken is not carried out adequately by the departments of health and agriculture, as well as SARS.

Robust property rights? The land reform spectre also impacts chicken farmers.

Sadly, we do not have to look further than our northern neighbour to see how a perfect storm, resulting in low or no investment in agriculture, could play out.

The World Food Programme recently announced a rapid expansion of its already sizeable emergency operation in Zimbabwe, where drought, flooding and the macro-economic meltdown have plunged 7.7 million people – half the population – into severe hunger.

Climate change is undoubtedly a contributor to food insecurity – one only has to consider the erratic rainfall patterns in southern Africa to appreciate this – but so is poor government policies and practices.

A country that had the stuffing knocked out of it by years of delinquent government, Zimbabwe can offer no resistance to the ravages of climate change, and its citizens are thrown upon the mercy of the world.

A country’s best defence against food insecurity is to have coherent food production and protection policies in place that robustly support the production of sufficient staples to meet its citizens’ needs. Local production is largely protected from the vagaries of international trade, world leaders’ emotional outbursts, and environmental impacts in other parts of the world. Local production can also safeguard populations against international price setting and currency fluctuations.

Turning our attention back to chicken, consider this: Currently, chicken production is the single biggest agricultural sector in South Africa. It employs more people than any other sector in agri-production and agri-processing, and consumes more than half of all the maize produced in this country – thereby securing further jobs and economic activity in rural South Africa.

Importantly, the chicken industry is a driver of rural economic activity and plays a critical role in supporting the basic economies of food-insecure and resource-poor areas. Chicken farms are not in cities, neither are the processing plants where chickens are slaughtered and processed for consumption. Entire rural value chains exist because of the chicken industry. Furthermore, it is estimated that one chicken industry worker typically supports up to 10 dependents – adding up to 1.2 million people directly affected by the fortunes of one industry.

Among its many other features, the chicken industry is also being drastically undermined by predatory imports.

In this regard, two issues, social and economic, are of particular importance. A dynamic and resilient rural economy is directly associated with a country’s internal food security (according to the International Food Policy Research Institute), and the chicken value chain employs and empowers significant numbers of women. In fact, processing plants employ up to 70% women. This statistic is important, given that women and children are usually most harmed by food insecurity.

Apart from poor physical and cognitive development – leading to the kind of education outcomes that keep disadvantaged households trapped in a poverty cycle – research is revealing a deeply disturbing link between food insecurity and gender-based violence.

A 2019 study conducted in Soweto by Hatchet and others found that men living in households that had recently experienced food insecurity had double the odds of perpetuating intimate partner violence than those who had not.

A further study, this one from the Sexual Violence Research Initiative, found that poorer households where women contributed a less significant portion of the total income were at increased risk of physical or sexual intimate partner violence. It provides important insights around empowering women financially and its implications on domestic violence.

Nobody can claim that the chicken industry can solve domestic violence, but its demise by uncurbed predatory imports, lack of cohesive government policy and limited investment, will no doubt contribute to the misery experienced by women and children, particularly in rural areas.

Why then is government dragging its heels when it comes to implementing the poultry industry masterplan that was signed in November? The final text has not been released, neither has details related to the oversight body or the disbursement of the pledged investments been released.

Of most immediate concern, however, is government’s silence on the poultry industry’s application for higher tariffs on imports of frozen chicken portions from Brazil. The decision has been delayed repeatedly, allowing aggressive foreign exporters and opportunistic local importers to take big bites out of the industry, and in so doing chipping away at South Africa’s food security position.

The deterioration of the chicken industry – remember, it is the biggest agri-sector in South Africa – will undoubtedly impact the country’s food secure status. It doesn’t have to be this way. It is within government’s power to prevent us from becoming a food-insecure nation, and to keep our women and children safe from violence induced by a lack of food.