Home Food for Thought Mzansi, we’re literally eating ourselves to death

Mzansi, we’re literally eating ourselves to death

Studies show 44% of deaths in South Africa are diet-related to non-communicable diseases

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A recent, comprehensive global review of the food security index put South Africa in the 48th position out of 113 countries – improving slightly when compared with the previous year.

Singapore and Ireland remain the two most food secure countries in the world. When it comes to food security, Mzansi has more strength in the availability and quality of food safety net programmes and nutritional standards which help us be the most food secure nation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, South Africa scores very low when in it comes to public expenditure in agricultural research and development. It’s a mouthful, but the stagnant GDP per capita – which is an indication of consumer affordability – suggests that more and more consumers are struggling to afford food, at least at a household level.

Lack of nutritious diet ‘causing obesity’

South Africa is considered a middle-income country and is battling with overweight and obese children and adults. A 2016 study showed that at least 13% of children are obese while in adults, at least 27% of women were moderately obese to severely obese in South Africa. Whilst more recent research isn’t readily available, it’s safe to assume that not much has changed in the meantime.

The shift in consumption patterns from traditionally unprocessed food products toward highly processed and unhealthy diets is considered one of the main driving factors of higher rates of obesity and other diet-related non-communicable disease (NCDs). NCDs are among the leading causes of death globally and this trend has negative ramifications in South Africa as well.

Presently, 44% of deaths in South Africa are diet-related and related to NCDs while another 27% of premature deaths are also NCDs. This is a cause for concern given that South Africa is referred to as food secured at national level, but food insecure at household level. Food security dimensions are measured by the availability and affordability of food, as well as a nutritious diet.

One of the factors for the high rate of death might be that South Africans lack access to a nutritious diet due to affordability issues.

It is estimated that 25% of the country’s population lives below the food poverty line and this could increase given the slow economic growth and rising unemployment, especially amongst youth, women and persons living with disabilities. The latest employment figures indicate that the unemployment rate is at 29% which perpetuates the non-affordability problem for nutritious food, consequently leading to obesity, undernourishment and related diseases.

The overall impact of food insecurity on the economy are the growing health bill and dwindling labour productivity in the workplaces. To address the growing food insecurity problem, there is a need to promote all food security dimensions. This starts with designing adequate farmer support programmes to ensure quality production of food by both commercial and emerging farmers.

Moreover, the affordability of food must be strengthened across rural and urban dwellers.  The recent food basket index shows that rural consumers are paying more on food items such as white sugar, margarine, and full-cream, long-life milk than their urban counterparts in 2019. There are also other factors that lead to inaccessibility of nutritious diets, such as bad infrastructure, a lack of knowledge and limited investments in agricultural research and development.

What can be done?

Access to affordable nutritious food plays a vital role in any household. It is very crucial to create a platform for a healthy food system that will also accommodate poor households. While South Africa is a food secure country at national level, signs of food insecurity at household level are clearly visible and one of the reasons is the lack of buying power for food that is nutritious.

Proper integration of the various aspects of the economy is paramount. Government should take a serious step on investing in rural, emerging farmers. This will help the majority of rural households have easy access to an affordable nutritious diet while also creating jobs for them. Furthermore, there should be a change in the dependence on imported food such as poultry meat, while the government can invest in supporting local production. This will create more jobs as well.

Fezeka Matebeni
Fezeka Matebeni
Fezeka Matebeni is an Agricultural economist at National Agricultural Marketing Council. She holds MSc in Agricultural Economics from the Stellenbosch University. Fezeka is responsible for research on agricultural value chain, food price transmission and on topical food security topics and she is a member of the Agricultural Economics Association of South Africa.
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