STATEMENT BY THE AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
THE ROLE OF THE AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH COUNCIL IN ENGENDERING FOOD SECURITY IN SOUTH AFRICA.
The Agricultural Research Council adheres to the definition of food security as a state when all people at all times have physical and economic access to safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for a healthy life.
As a Science Council, the ARC’s contribution to the achievement of food security is based on the provision and development of technologies that improve the productivity of agriculture, ensure the sustainability of agriculture, reduce the costs of food and improve the quality and availability of food.
An essential first step in addressing issues of food security is the knowledge of the composition of the resource base and the limitations thereof. The ARC has developed the South African ecotope information system that provides an effective rating instrument for crop suitability in different parts of the country. This information is available in the Agricultural Geo-referenced Information System [AGIS] and is freely available to planners requiring information on the suitability of different parts of the country for the production of different crops.
Once the parameters for production have been established the ARC plays a significant role in the development and breeding of plants and animals that can thrive in the conditions faced. Crop breeding is a major strength of the ARC and is the avenue through which improvements in yields and output per unit area have been generally achieved in South African agriculture. Crop breeding provides the platform for relying on the genetic potential of the crop to address issues of plant nutrition and plant protection rather than the use of external fertilisers and pesticides. Biotechnological techniques allow for much faster selection techniques in the plant breeding process and are being applied by the ARC to improve the number of plant varieties available on the market, and to improve the potential and productivity of indigenous food crops including traditional vegetables and fruits.
The ARC conducts similar research with respect to range and forage plants where it is virtually the sole producer of forage seeds. The ARC is responsible for the Livestock Improvement Programme on behalf on the National Department of Agriculture, and plays an important role in monitoring the quality of the livestock available to South African farmers.
The ARC is very active in reviewing agricultural production systems to ensure their long-term sustainability and the minimisation of their impact on the natural environment. Areas of immediate attention include the reduction in the use of pesticides, chemical fertilisers and the water consumption of production systems. Reductions in the use of these inputs reduces the burden placed on the environment through agro-chemicals and agriculture’s use of scarce water resources, and it has the effect of reducing the input costs of production. Lower input costs translate into lower prices for produce that helps to make food even more affordable.
The ARC is pioneering the use of sterile insect technology for controlling fruit flies in the deciduous fruit industry of the Western Cape. This intervention bears the potential for effecting significant savings on pesticide costs, the generation of greater income from overseas because of the environmentally friendly fruit production system whilst leaving the production areas in a healthier and environmentally friendly state.
The ARC is further investigating ways of improving the nutritional quality of the food available to our people, and has adopted the route of bio-fortification of staple foods to improve their nutritional balance and quality. The ARC has noted the Department of Health’s finding that Vitamin A deficiency is a major cause of visual impairment and that iron deficiency is a widespread nutritional disorder, and has developed a yellow flesh sweet potato that is an excellent source of dietary energy whilst having large reserves of Vitamin C and Iron in the flesh, and substantial reserves of Vitamin A in the leaves.
The ARC plays a significant role in addressing issues of food safety and provides laboratory services for food pathogen detection at high levels of sophistication. These services ensure that food safety standards can be maintained at high levels in processed foods.
The ARC is also very actively involved in direct interventions to promote food security in the country. The ARC has a dedicated programme on Sustainable Rural Livelihoods that provides for direct intervention in communities. This programme is currently funded to the tune of R13 million per annum and is aimed at providing services in the following areas to rural communities.
SRL programmes in all ARC Divisions are aimed at developing skills to be able to start agricultural businesses, with a strong food security focus. These businesses include mushroom production [± 10], bee-keeping [± 4], vegetable production [± 10], herb production [± 10], subtropical crop production [± 10], improved livestock production [± 320], and dry land crop production of crops other than maize, such as soybean and groundnuts [± 80]. Farmers are further encouraged and assisted to establish co-operatives.
Examples of SRL projects are: -
Northwest – 7 localities – 98 farmers, Limpopo – 2 localities – 88 farmers, Mpumalanga – 2 localities – 50 farmers, Northern Cape – 1 locality – 15 farmers
Northwest – 2 localities – 15 farmers, Mpumalanga – 2 localities – 14 farmers, Limpopo – 1 locality – 30 farmers.