World Food Day, October 2020

Message of support by Ms Nardos Bekele-Thomas, UN Resident Coordinator in South Africa.

Ministers present here today,

Honourable Deputy Minister Mr. Sdumo Dlamini

Honourable Ambassadors

Invited Guests;

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be here today celebrating with you the World Food Day. As you know, the theme, this year, is “Grow, nourish, sustain. Together. Our actions are our future.” Such a celebration, which is a way to raise awareness of hunger and malnutrition, as well as to remind us of the fragility of food production systems around the world, is as relevant today as it was when the World Food Day was created 41 years ago. This is because over 800 million people in the world still awake and go to sleep hungry. This is disheartening and just shows how far we still are from achieving the Zero Hunger SDG target by 2030.

I should also mention, of course, that the World Food Day was created 41 years ago to celebrate the Foundation of the United Nations Food and  Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on 16th October 1945 – that is, just a few days before the United Nations itself – to promote global action against hunger by generating knowledge in support of food production systems.

I would also like to point out that, when FAO was created, the crisis the world was experiencing was one of production. So, in its first years, FAO’s work was focused on expanding the output of farms, boosting productivity, and supporting mechanisation and irrigation schemes.

Since then, the issues have become increasingly more complex. Contemporary issues include environmental and sustainability concerns, the quest for green energy and the role of financial players in agricultural markets. FAO’s work and thinking has evolved together with this more challenging world.

My presentation, today, will try to acknowledge some of these growing complexities, and propose that answers to hunger and malnutrition require a more holistic approach.  

In the last two decades, we saw progress in reducing poverty, and in our fight against hunger and malnutrition, though in the past 5 years, hunger has been rising again.  

At the same time, what we see is that the food production-hunger-malnutrition nexus has been buffeted by at least three rising trends in the past 20 years or so.

The first is climate change-related shocks. These shocks, that hit our food production systems in the form of hurricanes, droughts and other extreme weather events, disrupt crop production and cause great insecurity among subsistence farmers.

The second is the rising demand for biofuels, which has shifted the use of arable land in favour of crops for biofuel production. This has contributed to higher food prices, which affects food affordability by the poor.

The third is financial speculation in food commodities such as wheat, whose prices become more volatile and cause disturbances in correlated food markets, creating an additional source of insecurity to poor consumers.  

These factors contribute to price volatility and food insecurity for the over 2 billion people in the world who, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, “do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food.”  

My question then is: What is the best approach to tackle hunger and malnutrition? In what follows,  I will suggest that we need an approach  that takes full account of the geography of poverty, and the related need to address both food production and access by the poor.

We know that the world has witnessed rising levels of urbanisation in the past several decades, with the proportion of people living in urban areas reaching 56 per cent of the total world population in 2019.

Here, in Sub-Saharan Africa however, the urbanisation rate is at 41 per cent. This implies that a large majority of poor people on this continent live in rural areas, where livelihoods for many of them are still based on subsistence farming.

For me, this clearly buttresses the policy need to support small-scale food farmers. They require research and technology that can help generate productivity gains and lead to more sustainable forms of production. This, then, can contribute to substantial reduction in hunger and malnutrition among the rural poor.

What about South Africa?

In South Africa, the urban population reached 67 per cent in 2019, thus higher than the average for Sub-Saharan Africa as well as higher than the world average. However, the majority of poor South Africans, who are most likely to experience hunger and malnutrition, are still to be found in the rural sector. Indeed, the 2018 World Bank Study “Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa” shows that 60 per cent of the poor live in rural areas. But it is not just that. In addition, rural poverty is deeper and more unequal among the poor themselves. This means that, for South Africa, tackling hunger and malnutrition among the rural poor should still be a priority for policy action. This requires great attention to rural development, including investment in biodiversity, which is important for food security and resilience to climatic shocks.

At the same time, urbanisation in South Africa is increasing rapidly and it will catch up, sooner or later, with other emerging market economies such as Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Russia, where levels of urbanisation are in the range from 75 to 92 per cent.

What do these higher levels of urbanisation imply? The answer is: To eliminate hunger by 2030, the government of South Africa will have to pull all its policy levers to tackle urban poverty, which, historically, has been concentrated in townships and informal settlements.

Unlike for rural areas, where great effort should be made to support food production and resilience to shocks, in urban areas the focus should be on food affordability. To ensure affordability, it is essential that jobs are created and social protection programmes expanded, to  those who cannot be employed in the immediate.

Of course, social protection should cover the rural poor as well, since not all of them are producers; and those who are producers have too little cultivable land available and rely on low-productivity techniques, hence failing to produce enough to meet their needs. Moreover, they face food insecurity due to irregular streams of income and a lack of savings to cover periods of income gaps.

Expansion of social protection has become ever more urgent as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic has hit the poor and the vulnerable the hardest. According to a recent report by the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, over 3 million South Africans lost their jobs between February and April this year. Total employment fell by 18 per cent during that short period; among manual workers, it fell 24 per cent; and among women, 26 per cent! And this has happened when a significant proportion of households were already facing inadequate or severely inadequate access to food.

The hardest hit, therefore, needs urgent access to regular income to be able to withstand the current and future crises with no hunger.

The long-term solution is to build back better by targeting the right interventions that address the structural obstacles behind lack of job creation: Land reform and support to labour-intensive industries.  Jobs should be created for all, but especially for the youth. Unemployment for the youth between 15 and 24 years of age reached 59 per cent at the end of the first quarter of 2020.

I must say that the Government of South Africa has taken the correct decision by  stressing in its Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, presented to Parliament yesterday, the need to support labour-intensive industries and to continue with the Social Relief of Distress Grant adopted in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Indeed, the Government of South Africa could go further and fully introduce a Basic Income Grant.  

Second, building back better should entail full programme support to food systems that are based on more sustainable agriculture practices and more resilient to shocks. Moreover, small-scale farmers should have easier access to finance and markets, including through digital platforms and technologies such as fintech and e-commerce.

More broadly, and in line with what is being proposed in the South African Recovery Plan, the government should support agrobusiness and incentives for producers to invest, incorporate innovation and move up in their value chains. Agro-business is an industry that is labour intensive and therefore with higher capacity to generate the jobs that the country so desperately needs.

Finally, what we need, more than ever, are innovative solutions and strong partnerships. Everyone has a role to play in ensuring nutritious food for all, from governments, private businesses to individuals. Private sector companies, many of which have been severely affected by the pandemic, can have an enormous influence on how communities, economies and food systems respond to the challenges we currently face, including climate change. They can make a difference by sharing expertise and resources.

What we need, above all, is global solidarity and global action, to tackle the challenges of hunger and malnutrition, which are both local and global.

Our future requires ACTION NOW. Thank you very much.







Speech by
Nardos Bekele-Thomas
Resident Coordinator
Nardos Bekele-Thomas
UN entities involved in this initiative
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations