South Africa’s Agricultural Sector Equipped to Navigate the Drought

In recent months, South Africa has experienced extreme drought conditions significantly impacting the agricultural sector and raising concerns about food prices and availability. With these challenges, there are notable strengths and strategies within the agricultural sector that help maintain stability and resilience in difficult times.

Despite being a water-scarce country, South Africa has developed strong agricultural practices. Particularly, irrigation regimes which assist in mitigating the impact of drought. Although the recent dry period has resulted in a projected decrease in total grain and oilseed production down by approximately 21% from the previous year; the reserves accumulated during previous favourable seasons serve as a buffer against shortages. According to the latest data from the Crop Estimates Committee, the total grain and oilseeds production are estimated at 15,8 million tonnes, down 9% from last month and 21% lower than last season’s harvest. White and yellow maize harvests are estimated to be 6,3 million tonnes (down 25% y/y) and 6,9 million tonnes (down 13% y/y), respectively, placing the total maize production estimate at 13,2 million tonnes (down 20% y/y), the lowest in five years.

One of the key strengths of South Africa’s agricultural sector is its ability to accurately measure metrics such as areas planted, expected yields, and any changes therein. This foresight facilitates the implementation of proactive risk mitigation strategies, reducing the likelihood of being caught off guard by unfavourable conditions. Recent reports confirm the arrival of ships at Cape Town harbour carrying significant quantities of yellow maize, signalling a proactive response to potential shortages. Crop estimates indicate sufficient supply to meet domestic demand, with an excess of approximately 1 million tonnes of white maize available for export. While neighbouring countries are also affected by the drought and may need to import from South Africa, the free-market dynamics allow for efficient allocation and distribution of resources to mitigate the impact.

Regarding short-term concerns related to higher food prices, recent trends indicate a decline in food prices. While grains may be impacted by the dry spell, other commodities such as vegetables and meat products may see further price declines. Factors such as improved irrigation practices for vegetables and the recovery of animal stocks following diseases like avian influenza contribute to this positive trend. Food prices continued to decrease from 9,0% in November 2023 to 6,1% in February 2024, in line with levels last observed in March and April 2022. Global supply chains offer support, with favourable prices for commodities such as yellow maize available for importation in case of local supply shortages. This highlights the interconnected nature of the global food market and South Africa’s ability to leverage international resources to address domestic challenges.

Despite the undeniable impact of the drought, it is essential to acknowledge and support the farmers who are feeling the brunt of the drought. Their commitment and perseverance are pivotal in sustaining our food supply. AgriSA offers its support to all our food producers in this difficult time, trusting in their ability to weather this storm and thrive until the next season. South Africa’s agricultural sector demonstrates remarkable resilience and stability. Through leveraging smart practices, strategic reserves, and responsiveness to global market dynamics, the country is well-equipped to mitigate the effects of drought and ensure food security for its population. All stakeholders in the value chain are encouraged to approach the forthcoming challenges with caution but also with confidence in the resilience of our agricultural sector.