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Can bilateral ties between SA and Argentina improve food security?

nalediplaaitjiesArgentina is one of the leading countries in the adoption of no-till farming. As in the case of South Africa, Argentina’s economy is dominated by the agricultural sector, dependent on processed food produce. The aim of this paper is to show how bilateral cooperation between these two developing states could foster technological advancements and transfers, as well as diversify the two countries’ export markets for their agricultural sectors.

South Africa is the biggest exporter of maize in the Southern African Development Community (SADC); thus the recent droughts in North West and Free State pose not only a national challenge but a regional one. Drought and climate change are some factors which heighten food insecurity in southern Africa. Lack of rainfall has been responsible for over 50% of crop failure; in 2015 maize production has dropped by a third compared to 2014.1 The limited availability of maize has forced South Africa to import maize produce at international rates leading to the overall price increase of maize produce. The increase in the price of white maize, a staple food for millions of households, has spread the impact to the average South African. The effects of the drought are not only evident in the Maize industry; the South African red-meat industry has also felt the blow as a consequence. Yellow maize, mostly used as animal feed has also seen its price increase, causing a negative effect on cattle farmers.

Although the South African economy is dependent on the primary sector, a great deal of the country’s technological advances has tended to cater to the mining sector. There has been no advancement in South Africa’s agriculture technology, while the rest of the world has shifted towards no-till farming. No-till farming involves “planting crops into untilled soil by opening a narrow, trench or band sufficient width and depth to obtain proper seed coverage” (Derpsch et al, 2010:4).2 With respect to the no-till option, could South Africa’s relations with Argentina be strengthened in this area?

Diplomatic ties between South Africa and Argentina were established in 1991 and further strengthened by the ratification of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU)-Mercosur agreement signed in December 2000. The Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) commenced in 2004, promoting trade between the two regions on selected products. This was the first trade agreement concluded by SACU as a single body, notably with another developing region, giving meaning to the objective of South-South cooperation and integration. The PTA provides a legal framework governing the two region’s relations and covers products in the industrial, agricultural and fishery sector.

In 2005 the then Minister of International Relations of South Africa, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rafael Bielsa and established a Bi-National Commission (BNC) with Argentina. The commission aimed at promoting and increasing bilateral co-operation in political, economic, technical, scientific and social issues. Based on the 2007 strategic plan, the South African government assisted Argentine small and medium enterprises (SMMEs) to enter what is referred to as non-traditional or exotic markets, to further diversify export markets.

Following the establishment of the BNC between these two states, Argentina experienced a rise of investments in the country’s mining sector by South African businesses. According to IES Online, mining-related investments in Argentina increased by 72% in 2012 compared to the previous year. The Argentine mining sector is important for South Africa as it is still developing from a low base and in many ways pioneering work (South African Embassy, 2013).3 South Africans have been pioneers in the mining sector for years, this contributed to the country becoming a major player in the mining sector. Strengthened relations with Argentina will mean the transfer of mining technology and expertise to the Argentine markets.

Argentina-South Africa relations have been widely criticized as some observers believe that relations are in favour of Argentina, more specifically within the area of trade. In 2011, imports from Argentina amounted to US$1.08 billion while South African exports to Argentina totalled US$205 million.4 South African imports from Argentina consist mainly of agricultural goods, and owing to the recent droughts, the import of wheat is also expected to increase. South African companies have invested in many businesses in Argentina, notably the mining sector, diversifying Argentine markets.

From a South African perspective, Argentina boasts of a state of the art food sector, which provides an opportunity for South Africa to discuss issues related to food prices, famine and malnutrition as key points in strengthening co-operation. Bilateral agreements prior to 2013 never emphasized the transfer of agricultural technology or expertise to improve South Africa’s food sector and it was only in 2013 when the South African government signed a bilateral agreement aimed for agricultural co-operation putting in place a framework to intensify exchanges of “experts, missions, activities, and direct contact with applied research institutions” (Mokomele, 2013).5 Building on this relationship, South Africa and Argentina should discuss opportunities for agricultural industries and their value chains.

No-till farming is a sustainable system of farming that ensures the optimization of soil productivity, as it produces crops without degrading the soil. Improved farming systems equates to less vulnerability to pests, diseases and droughts. Therefore no-till farming can be used as a response to global challenges associated with climate change, land and environmental degradation and increasing cost of food, energy and production inputs. The advantages of no-till farming can be seen in Latin American countries where close to 70% of Argentine cultivated land is not tilled. Argentina today not only produces food, but also exports farming technology/machinery.

South Africa began experimenting with no-till farming in 2007, guided and assisted by Argentina in an effort to improve the production capabilities of small-scale farmers. However, South African farmers are yet to formerly adopt this farming technique; according to the Department of Agriculture data, less than 10% of the country’s cultivatable land was under no-tillage in 2014. As stated above, no-till farming has countless conservation advantages, specifically in the context of climate change. No-till farming can be used as a means to counter the effects caused by drought, as it helps with soil conservation. No-tillage is widely used by farmers in the Natal region; the spread of no-tillage is needed in regions such as the North-West and Free State as they produce the bulk of South Africa’s maize. In South Africa no-tillage is widely adopted by commercial farmers however small and medium farmers lack the funding to finance the transmission to no-till farming. In this area Argentina has had success and therefore can be a valuable agricultural partner for South Africa.

Relations with Argentina need to be further strengthened, especially agricultural ties. The South African maize industry can gain expertise from the Argentine food sector. There is a great need for investments in the South African maize industry from countries such as Argentina. Although no-till farming is practiced in South Africa, there is room for expansion moving away from the experimental base to implementation on other crops. The no-till farming can be used as a response to possible droughts in the future. South Africa can assist with the expansion of Argentina’s mining sector and in exchange Argentina facilitates the transition to no-till farming to counter South Africa’s food insecurity and economic pressures which should include the discussion around agricultural value chains.

1 News24. SA Maize crop down a third – food shortage fears, http://www.news24.com/Green/News/SA-maize-crop-down-a-third-food-shortage-looms-20150511, 11 May 2015.
2 Derpsch R., Friedrich T., Kassam A. & Hongwen L. “Current status of adoption of no-till farming in the world and some of its main benefits”, Volume 3(1), March 2010.
3 South African Embassy in the Netherlands, Overview of the South African Capital Equipment Sector http://www.zuidafrika.nl/mining-industry 
4 Department: International Relations and Cooperation, Joint Communiqué: South Africa and Argentina Binational Commission,  http://www.dfa.gov.za/docs/2012/arge1102.html, November 2012.
5 Mokomele, P. Agriculture ministers strengthen ties, http://www.harvestsa.co.za/articles/south-africa-partners-with-argentina-7522.html, 13 June 2013.


Ms Naledi Plaatjies is a NRF – DST research intern based at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD

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