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A crisis within a crisis: Impacts of COVID-19 on food and nutrition security for smallholder farmers

As the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold in South Africa (SA), the government has stepped up efforts to curb its spread. The crisis continues to change people's lives, with significant consequences for the economic, education, public services and agricultural sector.

Natural disasters tend to affect a particular area - floods in Mozambique may have destroyed crops in 2018/2019, for example, but the coronavirus has had a much more pervasive effect across the country and regions at large.

Many governments have begun to realise that, due to the pandemic, a crisis within a crisis is looming. This is particularly the case in countries such as South Africa, where years of apartheid have left behind a dualistic system that serves distinct social groups. From an agricultural perspective, the dualistic system pits an agro-industrial food system against informal and local food systems. The latter tend to serve the vulnerable groups, especially people living in rural areas and informal settlements. The spread of the virus is likely to devastate further these marginalised groups who already face challenges such as poor health, low food and nutritional security, and limited access to resources and services to mitigate risk.

What about the South African food system?

South Africa is one of the few African countries embedded in the global agro-industrial food system; however, the status of food remains a reflection of the legacy of apartheid policies. Land ownership, and therefore crop production, for commercial consumption was primarily the preserve of white commercial farmers, while smallholder farmers' produce was mostly for own-consumption and sale in informal markets. The result is a dichotomous food system, where the commercial sector supplies the dominant food system.

At the same time, the smallholder producers channel their produce to household consumption and alternative/informal food systems that are poorly developed. Consequently, smallholder producers and low-income households also have to rely on the dominant food system.

Malnutrition continues to affect the lives of millions of children and women in South Africa. Despite the reference in agricultural transformation policies to improve smallholder farming that is still practised by previously disadvantaged South African smallholder farmers, the food system remains largely untransformed. Moreover, South African food prices remain too high for the majority of her people, who consequently cannot afford to purchase adequate food, leaving 21.3% of the population with poor access to food.

Food security within smallholder farming systems

In rural and peri-urban areas, challenges to food access and availability are different to some extent from what they are in urban areas. Access to locally produced food is relatively more straightforward, as many have access to food at the farm gates, and households produce a proportion of their own food and often hold some modest food stocks.

Smallholder farmers, also referred to as small-scale communal farmers, play a huge role in terms of household food security, and drive the informal food system in marginalised rural areas. However, contrary to global reports that say smallholder farmers produce 70%-80% of the world's food and produce more food crops than large-scale farms, smallholder farmers in SA contribute less than 5% of agricultural produce.

Several studies have shown that smallholder systems in SA are exposed to a plethora of constraints, which include, but are not limited to, high vulnerability to climatic extremes such as droughts and floods, and limited access to resources and extension services. The current scale of production and challenges faced contradicts many opinions that view smallholder farmers as 'emerging' farmers; the implication being that they are bona fide farmers only in so far as they begin to resemble large-scale white commercial farmers. Moreover, the participation of smallholder farmers in agriculture remains at a subsistence level and may not reflect global trends. That aside, smallholder farmers have a huge role to play in sustaining food and nutrition security in rural communities during and post COVID-19.

Figure 1. Small-scale farmers in one of their homestead gardens

Disruptions to local and informal food systems

Although the spread of COVID-19 has been slower than in most countries, the stringent measures put in place have a far-reaching impact on food and nutrition security of marginalised communities. Restricted movements will create serious buying, marketing, storage and processing constraints that may generate particularly acute problems for perishables. The COVID-19 crisis comes at the time where smallholder farmers are harvesting and selling their summer plant crops. From this point of view, difficulties in securing help from casual labour and neighbours to harvest produce may result in significant post-harvest losses.

Even if farmers harvest, those that participate in informal markets are at a loss as these are banned. There are also disruptions in supply chains because of transportation problems. Smallholder farmers are losing business daily because they do not have permits to go and sell their produce in town, and they cannot go door to door to sell because they need to practice social distancing. The closure of local markets and suspended travel from hawkers and bakkie traders mean the distribution chain within the informal food system has ground to a halt. Furthermore, restrictions on trade and movement are already making it difficult for smallholder farmers to access markets, both to obtain essential inputs such as seeds and to sell their final product.

For the more vulnerable members of rural communities, that is the elderly, women and children, that have limited access to land for farming activities, COVID-19 is impacting on the ability to access food. This will come from the restricted movements that limits where they can purchase food items, low buying power to hoard food, since most do not have good sources of income, and the banning of locations where they could purchase food, such as local markets. In this regard, the most vulnerable groups within rural communities have been made even more vulnerable. This means after the COVID-19 crisis, community member with access to land have a chance of recovering; however, these individuals might be plunged further into poverty.

Figure 2. Group of small-scale farmers working in their communal garden

Building resilience in the face of COVID-19

Farming needs to be a viable, productive and economic activity, and have the capacity to absorb and spring back from shocks like COVID-19. To secure the future of food, resilience in farming can be achieved in many different ways resulting in better management of the livelihood's assets. This crisis, like many others, points to the need for investments in social protection systems.

Strengthening food processing and storage facilities closer to the farms to ensure that small-scale farmers are able to add value to their produce and increase shelf life of perishable goods through better storage, including solar dryers. Investing in local community seed and grain banks will provide easy access to food and inputs in times of crisis. Investing in local food production and consumption and supporting right to food policies and institutions is important, as is exploring ways for trade agreements and rules to better support the transition towards more sustainable agro-ecological food systems and to support local production for local consumption. Review of existing trade and investment deals will ensure they do not undermine local food systems, and local food procurements will prioritise local farmers' production, and traditional and indigenous communities' food products and seeds.

The Ministry of Agriculture has launched several interventions to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on the productivity of smallholder and communal farmers. The main objective of this support is to complete the current production cycle to ensure adequate food production and supply for the next six months while the country is managing the COVID-19 pandemic. The targeted beneficiaries are smallholder and communal producers with a turnover of between R20 000 and R1 million per annum. These initiatives are targeted at the most vulnerable members of society: women, the youth and people with disability.

While these programmes are a good initiative, the funding criteria may result in many smallholder farmers being excluded as they make less than the minimum threshold required for support as set out by the Department. At this moment, it appears that the government has focused on smallholder farmers that actively participate in the supply chain within the formal food system. As such, government's assistance is more geared towards small-scale commercial farmers and less towards small-scale communal farmers. There is really nothing that indicates that they are considering those in the informal economic sector.

In the short to medium term, there is a need to provide smallholder farmers with the necessary support to enhance their productivity and market access, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic. This can be achieved by establishing collection or aggregation centres within communities where smallholder producers can bring their produce, necessitating development of a warehouse receipt systems for farmers to use for payments. Smallholder farmers must have access to finance so that they can continue to produce, and need cash handouts and safety net programmes to enhance their productivity. A capital injection in the agricultural sector could help smallholder farmers to continue operations. Providing storage will help reduce post-harvest crop losses during this lockdown period. Current restrictions must be loosened to enable smallholder farmers to access markets. During this lockdown period, governments can also purchase agricultural products from smallholder farmers to establish localised strategic emergency reserves, especially for non-perishable commodities to boost food supply.

To improve long-term resilience of smallholder farmers post COVID-19, lessons from projects such as the uMngeni Resilience Project (URP) can be used to strengthen adaptation strategies. This is to be achieved by increasing climate resilience and adaptive capacity by combining traditional and scientific knowledge in an integrated approach to adaptation to the climate crisis and even COVID-19. The project has implemented a suite of complementary gender-sensitive interventions focusing on i) early warning and ward-based disaster response systems; ii) ecological and engineering infrastructure solutions specifically focused on vulnerable communities, including women; iii) integrating the use of climate-resilient crops and climate-smart techniques into new and existing farming systems; and iv) disseminating adaptation lessons learned and policy recommendations to facilitate scaling up and replication.

In line with these interventions, several activities have been done in and around the UMngeni catchment to build resilience of vulnerable members of rural communities. The project has established a number of homestead and community gardens in Swayimane and Nhlazuka, and these have been providing a variety of fresh vegetables for the project members and the surrounding communities, comprising elderly women and the youth.

The project also offers community farmers with required skills and inputs such as seeds, seedlings, fencing, tunnels, etc, to grow food for their consumption and also for sale. The URP has provided farmers with several training sessions on gardening: land preparation, seedling production, planting, crop, weeds and pest management, harvesting, marketing and on basic post-harvest techniques such as making jam and pickling to reduce the need for storage and food loss. These skills will come in handy for preserving the current harvests since markets have been closed. The project is also planning construction of a packhouse for smallholder farmers, because after harvesting crops need to be prepared for sale. This will assist farmers in removing unmarketable produce, sorting crops by size or maturity, grading and packaging.

When it comes to maintaining food systems during the pandemic, South Africa, like many African countries, may have some advantages over other parts of the world, such as its relatively younger workforce. Nonetheless, it will undoubtedly face significant challenges in the coming months that will require thoughtful attention from policymakers. Early warning systems for famines - and associated emergency food provisioning systems - will have to be adjusted to increase awareness. These initiatives traditionally focus on food crises precipitated by droughts or insect infestations. A big part of efforts must also be focused on stemming the spread of COVID-19 itself. Crucial preventative measures will be essential to slowing the impacts of the virus, including informal food systems and smallholder producers.

Authors: uMngeni Resilience Project team members Nhlonipho Mbatha, Dr Vimbayi Chimonyo, Xola Nqabeni, Khethiwe Mthethwa and Dr Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi

The uMngeni Resilience Project is a partnership between the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the uMgungundlovu District Municipality and the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Centre for Transformative Agricultural and Food Systems.