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How the energy crisis impacts on food security in SA

In 2008, scores of South Africans responded in angry disbelief to calls to switch off their lights for an hour in WWF's annual Earth Hour campaign.
How the energy crisis impacts on food security in SA
© Noppasin Kortungsap –
In the midst of what was, at that point, the country's worst ever energy crisis, the call to voluntarily dim the lights seemed ludicrous. Seven years down the line, and with Earth Hour round the corner on 28 March, the country faces a similar energy situation, with talk of loadshedding continuing for the next few years at best.

The difference is, this time round we know more. Increasing resource price inflation and volatility has highlighted the interconnected and interdependent nature of energy, water and food resources and the increased risk of resource-related shocks.

A crisis in the energy system can quickly have knock-on effects to the food system. For example, consider the impacts of loadshedding on both irrigation schedules and the cold chain in food transport.

Malnutrition and hunger

In a country fraught with malnutrition and hunger and in the wake of the unprecedented Cape fires experienced on the hottest day in a century in the city, it is clear that a warming climate only adds further complexity and risk. In early 2013 WWF launched a project specifically focused on the nexus of food, energy and water to better understand the challenges and opportunities for food security in South Africa and the region.

The first phase of the research focused on information gathering and awareness-raising in both the private sector and government. What became clear was that there was not enough conversation between various stakeholders in the system. This thinking was the driving force behind a Transformative Scenario Planning process to consider the urgent challenge of securing and improving our food system. Southern Africa Food Lab, at Stellenbosch University, convened the process in partnership with WWF South Africa and Reos Partners.

Transformative Scenario Planning helps bring together teams of stakeholders - often with divergent views - to create stories about what could happen and what options are available to deal with such scenarios.

The scenarios concerning the South African food system from 2015-2030 were developed through structured research and workshops with participants from across the food system. The level of concern on the matter was clearly reflected in the level of participation in the scenarios from company CEOs to senior government officials.

Four scenarios

Four scenarios were developed focusing on plausible threats to natural resources, food production, the impacts of the political economy and nutrition issues respectively.

Looking only at the first scenario - the one that deals with the natural resources on which we rely in order to produce food - we're presented with some dire realities if increased warming and droughts develop as predicted.

Picture this scenario for a moment: increasing temperatures and droughts result in a crisis in water quality and quantity. This, of course, coincides with a crisis in energy supply, setting in motion a ripple-effect through interconnected ecological and social systems. Soils have been depleted, there is limited viable arable land, irrigation demand is growing and municipal infrastructure is ageing.

Poverty, inequality, high unemployment rates and household food insecurity form the social backdrop to this scenario. As a result of many of these factors, South Africa's river systems take strain, which in turn impacts on agriculture.

Some potential results: the quality of export crops would be compromised by poor water quality; significant job losses would occur in the agricultural sector; honeybee species would become endangered, threatening crop pollination; state expenditure on food may be diverted to nuclear infrastructure to address the energy crisis; crop yields would decrease; drought conditions would push up the price of staple foods.

Higher food prices

None of the above is far fetched. In fact, some of this is already playing out with 2015 predicted to be an eight-year low in maize production due to drought. The knock-on effects of this include higher food prices in the short-term as the grain is a basic input for the production of red meat, poultry, eggs and milk.

The purpose of developing the food future scenarios was to prompt a more coherent conversation about an effective food system for South Africa. The scenarios help to identify the choices organisations and individuals can make now to adapt to anticipated challenges or to shape, together, the future of food in South Africa.

Clearly there are some difficult conversations to be had and big decisions to be made. This is one of the reasons why this year's Earth Hour campaign, which culminates with a symbolic switch off of lights on 28 March from 8:30pm to 9:30pm, aims to raise awareness around climate change and its impacts on food, energy and water.

About Tatjana von Bormann

Tatjana von Bormann has spent the past seven years catalysing transformational change in food-agriculture markets. She joined WWF to develop the strategy for GreenChoice, a conservation sector collaboration aimed at reducing production impacts in food and fibre. Now as market transformation manager her focus is on research in the food supply chain and informing market use of standards and other mechanisms, to reduce production impacts for soft (food and fibre) commodities.

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