While agriculture remains active as an essential service despite the covid-19 crisis, a grey area in the regulations governing the lockdown is causing confusion when it comes to the livestock auctions.
In a bid to safeguard food security, government has listed farming and agricultural processing as an essential service. Farmers are therefore exempted from the 21-day lockdown and are allowed to continue with live auctions of livestock albeit under strict conditions.
However, there seems to be some difference in the interpretation of this exemption between law enforcement agencies and meat producers, who depend on these auctions to sell livestock on to butcheries and other meat processors.
Eastern Cape livestock farmer Dr Pieter Prinsloo says that although his farming business continues to operate as an essential service provider, some lockdown measures on the agricultural industry have been misunderstood by law enforcement authorities.
As a livestock farmer his business is highly dependent on selling wholesale beef to butcheries at live auctions in his community.
“What concerns me is the police and what they have now interpreted. There is a little bit of a discrepancy in terms of the interpretations of the regulations that were published. The police are now interpreting for instance that auctions cannot carry on, because it is regarded as a gathering of more than 50 people,” Prinsloo says.
Lockdown rules stipulate that gatherings of more than 50 people are not allowed. However, the agricultural industry has been exempted from this. In an address made by Minister Thoko Didiza on the 24th of March, she indicated that “live auctions of livestock and sale of other agricultural commodities will continue but under the strict conditions a prescribed by the President.”
The Queenstown farmer says farmers “are one of the luckier parts of the whole business sector, in the sense that we are actually allowed to carry on. Agriculture has got a value suddenly.”
Prinsloo owns Langside Meats and serves as the chairperson of AgriSA’s chamber of commodities. He says, all activities on his farm are carrying on as normal, albeit with added safety measures against the transmission of the coronavirus.
“With the extended value chain our big deliveries over long distances across provincial borders have been without incident, because of the permit system that has been installed. We’ve been regarded as essential services and we are in the clear,” he adds.
Dewald Olivier, chief executive officer of the South African Feedlot Association, says as it stands there is a small space for confusion in the interpretation of rules under lockdown. Although auctions are a part of the total value chain, he adds that we are facing a bit of a conundrum regarding the wholesale of meat products.
“It’s not clear cut. There needs to be discussions on what needs to happen. The only way I see this happening is if (auctions are) limited to 50 people. Almost like they do in the shops. You need to pre-register to attend the auction and you can only bring one person and only that person will buy livestock,” says Olivier.
Thoko Didiza, the minister of agriculture, land reform and rural affairs, has also given the green light for the sale of other agricultural commodities, as well as the exports and imports of critical agricultural commodities, despite the covid-19 lockdown.
During the recent announcement Didiza promised that “agricultural production in all its forms will remain uncompromised”. “These processes will continue as normal, as a foundation of South Africa’s food system,” she said.
In her address, made on the 24th of March, the Minister further confirmed that this applies to the entire food value chain – from farm-related operations, agro-processing and food manufacturing, logistics and related services, to wholesale and retail services and all support functions (such as veterinary services) to ensure efficient operation of the agro-food system.
Louis Meintjes, president of the Transvaal Agricultural Union (TLU SA), says Didiza also confirmed this during a ministerial meeting with agricultural role players. “The minister confirmed that auctions would continue, for the time being, to ensure the livestock industry doesn’t face any further damages after foot-and-mouth disease knocked the sector earlier this year. The goal is to protect food security and the agricultural economy.”