By Jessie Taylor


South Africa boasts a strong agricultural sector, that accounts for at least 10% of the country’s export earnings. The sector has been steadily growing over the last few years, but now economists fear this growth is starting to slow due to rising costs and transport challenges.

Finding alternative transport options could not only offer the sector the support it needs for continued growth, but it could also have the added benefit of reducing carbon emissions.

A healthy economic outlook

South Africa has a diverse agricultural sector that produces grains, fruits, wine and vegetables, as well as livestock production. The industry is a key earner for the country, with exports earning estimated at more than $10 billion. Leading exports include citrus, wine, table grapes, corn and apples accounted for the largest exports by value.

But at the same time, South Africa also imports more than $6 billion worth of agricultural goods annually – this was made up of rice, wheat, palm oil, cane sugar, sunflower oil and meat products.

The country’s agricultural gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 3.6% year on year. However, the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) has warned that the sectors growth could start to slow this year, due to increasing costs and logistical constraints.

This comes at a time when demand for fruit and vegetables is increase among European nations – which could open up various trade opportunities for South Africa.

The global trend toward healthy eating has seen an increased demand for fresh fruit in Europe.

According to South African Fruit Exporters (SAFE), European consumers are increasingly buying more fruit, mainly citrus, apples, pears and kiwis – fruit which has a longer shelf life, is high in vitamin C and is not too expensive.

However, this rising demand has one side effect: Carbon emissions. Importing fruit and vegetables is a carbon-heavy activity, as a result of the complex logistics involved.


Balancing natures with consumer demand

Research has found that global transportation of food produces up to 7.5 times more greenhouse-gas emissions than previously estimated. And a third of the emissions are created by the export and import of fruit and vegetables – twice the amount produced by growing them.

With the move to plant-based and healthy diets, demand is growing among wealthier nations for fresh fruit and vegetables year-round. This demand has seen just over 12% of the world’s population generating almost half of “food-mile” emissions. Food miles are used to describe the carbon intensity of transporting a tonne of a food item from its country of production to where the consumers live.

Around the world, there has been a shift towards reducing meat intake, as raising livestock is responsible for most of the agricultural production emissions. However, the transportation of fruits and vegetables is especially carbon-intensive, because they need to be shipped in refrigerated containers. 

If the fruits and vegetables are transported by truck, the carbon emissions increase even further compared to ocean shipping.

The complex transport system not only affects the planet but also eats into farmers’ bottom lines. According to the BFAP, the profitability of horticulture crops is often reduced by freight cost increases and delays at ports.

While the growing demand for fruit and vegetables offers promise from agricultural exporters such as South Africa, it also requires the country to grow its local markets.

Despite its large agricultural output, South Africa faces a gap between the population’s needs and the food products is produces. This gap must then be filled by imports.

Switching towards local supply greatly reduces transport costs and the resulting carbon emissions – and this requires encouraging purchasing at farmer’s markets for consumers, and encouraging retailers to support local farmers.

Another alternative is to explore new transportation methods. Creating a low-emissions global food transportation system could replace tracks and ships powered by fossil fuels. This would require the use of alternatives, such as vehicles powered by batteries, biofuels or hydrogen.


Quick facts on South Africa’s food imports:

  • South Africa’s main food imports include vegetables, meat, and cereals (especially rice). 
  • It is estimated that the country spends more than $88 billion on imports every year.
  • Most of our imported food is sourced from China, the United States, Argentina, Germany, United Kingdom.
  • Almost half of all South Africa’s imports come from Asian countries
  • South Africans use around three million tons of wheat annually, but local farmers produce only around half that amount. Most of our wheat is supplied by Russia.
  • South Africans have a sweet tooth – despite local production, South Africa imports around $430 million worth of sugar and confectionary, primarily from Thailand, Brazil and France.