• The share of the population unable to afford a healthy diet has fallen across all income groups
• Loadshedding has increased costs and pushed up prices throughout the food production value chain
• Food prices are not only determined by supply and demand, but also by policies and politics
Wars and weather, internal political struggles and loadshedding. This maelstrom of factors has severely affected South Africa’s economic wellbeing, but the impact on our physical health is often overlooked. Until now. According to the due of Dr Christine Taljaard-Krugell from the North-West University’s (NWU) Centre of Excellence for Nutrition and Prof Waldo Krugell from the NWU’s Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, by bringing together the fields of dietetics and economics, a picture is painted of our health now and in the future.
As they explain: “In recent years, food price inflation has skyrocketed in South Africa and around the world. The facts are well documented. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused the initial spike in the price of food commodities such as wheat and sunflower oil. Adverse weather conditions in the Americas kept the price of maize high. In South Africa, the mitigation of loadshedding increased costs and pushed up prices throughout the food production value chain. At the same time, economic growth stagnated and employment opportunities and incomes failed to keep pace with inflation. The proportion of the population unable to afford a healthy diet, fell across all income groups. Finding solutions to these challenges requires a multidisciplinary approach.”
Dr Taljaard-Krugell also notes that South Africa is in the midst of a nutrition transition as people migrate from rural to urban areas: “These people are less active and consume more processed foods. At the same time, big grocers and fast-food retail chains are expanding into rural and township malls. The result is the double burden of malnutrition, where undernutrition and overnutrition coexist in the same community, household and even person. Yet, a healthy diet is the key to reducing the incidence of noncommunicable diseases.”
She also says it is imperative that nutrition experts play an educational role in communities as to best equip them with the knowledge to navigate nutritional needs and financial constraints: “Expert advice plays an important role in educating the public about healthy and thrifty meal plans using the South African Food Based Dietary Guidelines (SA-FBDGs). At the NWU, dietetics students are trained with this focus on prevention in mind. In their fourth year of study, their internship includes service at community clinics. Community education is about behaviour change through healthy conversations about food and diet.”
According to Prof Krugell, economists and agricultural economics specialists at the NWU are trying to address the issues at a sectoral and macro level. He states: “Food prices are not only determined by supply and demand, but also by policies and politics. South African research shows that grants have made a clear contribution to reducing hunger. In fact, one study shows that the old-age grant improves food security and dietary diversity of rural households. Some individuals use the money for small-scale own production and benefit from having more food. Others use the money to buy a greater diversity of food, improving the quality of their diet. From time to time one sees proposals in the media about decoupling from international markets and export bans, but these have been opposed by economists in discussions about pricing and competition. Other policies are more controversial, such as tariffs on imported chicken pieces. Ultimately, the choice between cheaper imported chicken pieces and protecting domestic jobs is a political one.”
The NWU is committed to helping achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include the alleviation of poverty and hunger. The fields of economics and nutrition have an invaluable role to play in this endeavour, through their respective research and teaching and learning practices. Multidisciplinary research objectives for the future have been identified, and a litany of answers to some of the country’s most pressing questions await.
Prof Waldo Krugell
Dr Christine Taljaard-Krugell