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Time to rethink food security

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a major impact on global food supplies and prices, and may prompt a rethink about food security in nations suffering sudden food shortages.

Countries like South Africa, a food producer and exporter, have been affected by the global rise in food inflation, but not by shortages. Other countries have not been so fortunate.

Ukraine’s wheat exports have fed some 400 million people around the world, many of them in Africa. The United Nations has warned that the blockade on those wheat exports could turn hunger to famine in some regions. In response, producer countries are reducing exports to prioritise food supplies to their own people. India banned wheat exports and limited sugar exports, Indonesia imposed and then lifted a ban on palm oil exports, and Malaysia has stopped exporting chickens to Singapore.

The Singapore example is interesting because this tiny but wealthy nation imports some 95% of its chicken, according to a Reuters report quoting the Singapore Food Agency. The Malaysian ban has threatened production of the popular “chicken rice”, often labelled as Singapore’s national dish.

Image: The availability of Singapore’s national dish, Chicken Rice, is threatened as poultry exports from Malaysia are banned.

Singapore, with little agricultural land, has to import nearly all of its food, making it vulnerable to global food supply disruptions. It is seeking to increase local food production to increase its food security.

South Africa, too, should be re-evaluating its national food security in view of recent international developments. These include not only the impact of conflict, such as the Ukraine war, but also the spreading infection of avian influenza, or bird flu, which is affecting major poultry producing countries.

All European countries are banned from exporting poultry to South Africa, and now more than half of the states in the United States as well, and that number is growing. The result is that nearly 70% of our imported chicken comes from Brazil, one of the few parts of the world that has not yet reported bird flu outbreaks.

Chicken importers say that just under 10% of our chicken is imported. Our leading poultry producer, Astral Foods, puts it at 24%, and it has been far higher. This would include mechanically deboned meat, or MDM, a paste used in processed foods such as polony. The argument is that MDM ultimately competes with local chicken products. Either way, most of it comes from Brazil.

Between them, the Ukraine war and bird flu should produce lots of new thinking about food security.

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