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The impact of the Ukraine War on South Africa's food system

Wars, even wars that are far away, will always affect those who are most vulnerable. In this piece, Tamsin Faragher explains how a distant conflict could lead to a food security crisis at home.

When I was 14 - I started attending the End Conscription Campaign meetings. Being a girl, there was zero chance I'd be called up - which in the apartheid years was what happened to young, white men after completing high school. Meetings were held in the Rosebank Methodist Church, mostly attended by revered older people - and me. Conscription ended in the early 1990s and the organisation disbanded, but I'm proud to have participated in taking a stand against unjust wars and a corrupt political system. The thought of people dying for political, racist ideology was, and still is, horrific.

The war in the Ukraine is very far away from us in Cape Town. Or rather, it may seem very far away, but in reality it will invade our homes via the news and empty our pantries when food prices increase and food becomes scarce. It may not be this extreme, but it may -- we have no idea.

I wrote an email to our Food Systems Working Group earlier today highlighting why South Africans should be very interested in what is happening in the Ukraine. Dr Dirk Troskie from the Western Cape Department of Agriculture has suggested that these are some of the reasons.

South Africa is a net importer of wheat (about 50% of our consumption) and the Ukraine is one of the main sources of our wheat imports, particularly from the Eastern part of the country. Wheat is a winter crop and the spring harvest is currently in the fields. 

Questions that must be considered:

  • How will the war disrupt agricultural production and value chains?
  • Will the war destroy this crop?
  • Will the infrastructure (silos, roads, bridges, railways, etc.) be destroyed? 
  • How long will the war last and what will the situation be during the (Northern Hemisphere) spring harvest time?
  • Will Ukraine still exist or will it be part of Russia at that stage?
  • Will farmers be able to harvest and market their products via existing channels? 
  • Will existing trade agreements be affected?

Dr Troskie points out that the answers to these questions will have an impact on the wheat harvest from the Ukraine and in this way influence the price of wheat. Hence, the matter may not only be the availability of wheat, but also the price of wheat. With bread and pasta being a staple for a large segment of our most vulnerable people (particularly in the Western Cape) and a significant component of school (and other) feeding schemes, the change in price may have a major impact on food inflation for those communities.

South Africa is furthermore part of BRICS and a number of South Africans have a close historical affinity with Russia. As countries rally behind the Ukraine, will South Africa follow the West’s lead and introduce sanctions? What would the impact of sanctions be? Are there possible unintended consequences from implementing sanctions, particularly in relation to other trading partners?

Before implementing sanctions on Russia, Dr Troskie cautions that there is a need to understand how these sanctions will disrupt trade and how it will affect consumer spending in Russia. Edible fruit makes up 58% of South Africa’s exports to the Russian Federation, preparations of vegetables and fruit (i.e. canned fruit) 3,4% and wine 2,9%. We have to wonder if we will be able to continue to export these products and will Russian consumers be able to afford our products.

It is also important to note that a shortage of oil will not only increase the price of diesel (and hence domestic) production and transport cost for all farmed products, but nitrogen is a very important side-product of the oil refining process. It follows that a shortage of oil will inevitably also have an impact on the availability and cost of fertilizer. 

The war in the Ukraine may well cause food inflation and scarcity, which is of interest to Capetonians because it may significantly affect their ability to eat a healthy diet - and to thrive.

Tamsin Faragher

Built Environment Specialist

Tamsin is a built environment specialist (landscape architect) with experience both locally (South Africa) and internationally (London, Dubai and Abu Dhabi). She has worked across disciplines in the private and public sector (provincial and local government) including planning, design, implementation, infrastructure planning, environmental planning and policy.

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