Maize is a staple for millions in SA. What will happen when our harvest is not sufficient?

Maize is a staple for millions in SA. What will happen when our harvest is not sufficient?


By Dominic Naidoo

If you are a South African, you would have eaten pap at least once in your life. The crushed maize dish is a staple for most of our population.

Pap is crushed dried maize kernels that can also be made using cassava, a staple in countries toward central and east Africa. The kernels are dried until hard, crushed traditionally using a grinding stone until is a fine grain.

The grain is mixed with water until a smooth, porridge-like consistency is achieved. It can be enjoyed for breakfast as a smooth, sweet porridge or made firmer for lunch and dinner with vegetables or meat.

Mielie or maize pap is important to millions of South Africans as a staple carbohydrate that is accessible and affordable with many people in rural areas still making their own. South Africa and Lesotho have produced sizeable maize yields for decades and were able to sufficiently feed their populations with surplus harvests being processed for export. But what happens when the harvest is not sufficient to sate the nation’s hunger?

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In 2007, South Africa and Lesotho were among other Southern African countries facing a prolonged season of abnormally low rainfall, a drought. Long periods of low precipitation can result in diminished river and stream flows and severe damage to soil and crops.

The 2007 drought delivered on this. South Africa and Lesotho projected maize yields of up to 10 tons for the 2007 harvest but only managed 6 tons once the full effects of the drought were felt.

In Lesotho, maize production fell by 40% in 2007 with South African production declining 31% in both 2006 and 2007.

South Africa had to import maize for the first time in decades while Lesotho experienced a food shortage that affected an estimated 400 000 people, 20% of their population.

In February this year, the scientific journal Nature published a study titled: “Climate change as a driver of food insecurity in the 2007 Lesotho-South Africa drought” which concluded that the drought and many other severe weather phenomena experienced in 2007 were direct or indirect of a warming planet.

March 2007 saw Durban hit with severe coastal storms that damaged luxury seaside property all the way up to Ballito.

Johannesburg experienced one of its coldest winters with snow falling on 27 June 2007 and South Africa was not the only country to experience abnormal weather patterns in 2007.

Thirty million people were displaced in India, Bangladesh and Nepal after the region saw its worst monsoon season in recent memory. Fourteen million people were affected by flooding and mudslides caused by heavy rainfall in Southern China took the lives of 120 people. England and Wales saw the wettest May-June period since records began in 1766 which caused extensive flooding and a total of $6 billion in damages.

Germany swung from its driest April since 1901 to its rainiest May on record. Mozambique suffered its worst flooding in 6 years followed by a devastating cyclone that resulted in the deaths of 29 people and the evacuation of a further 60 000.

The Arabian Sea hosted its strongest cyclone on record, Cyclone Gonu hit Oman on 6 June 2007 killing 70 people.

Climate change is bringing about severe bouts of weather on both ends of the spectrum. Monsoon seasons become even wetter and dry seasons become drier. These events disproportionately affect the world’s poorest as seen with the 2007 South Africa-Lesotho drought. Severe weather events destroy crop and damage soil which may see a decrease in crop yields.

These decreases in harvests result in price increases which are felt more by poorer consumers who rely on staples like maize to feed their families. The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also affects the nutritional composition of crops reducing vital nutrients such as zinc, iron and protein.

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2018 that a planet-warming by an average of 1.5C would cause severe stresses on local and global food production which would ultimately lead to food insecurities not only in South Africa but around the world.

December last year saw President Cyril Ramaphosa appoint members of the inaugural Presidential Climate Change Coordinating Commission, a commission dedicated to formulating and overseeing strategies that would lead South Africa into a low-carbon, resilient, carbon-free economy and society. Better late than never I suppose.

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