The food and fibre industry is one of the most important sectors of the South African economy. Not only does it provide the essential products and resources to feed and clothe the population, but it also contributes about 15% of the South African gross national product and provides employment for about 1,2 million workers and a livelihood for about 6 million people. Food and clothes are and will remain one of humankind's primary needs, and this means that any individual that is trained in, or studies agriculture, fibre or food disciplines will always be guaranteed of certain job opportunities. The food and fibre industry not only consists of farming at the farm level but includes all the industries that provide inputs to the farmer, as well as services such as financing and training. The industries that process and market agricultural products also form part of this important sector.
Within this sector, the agricultural economist plays a vital role. The agricultural economist has multiple functions and can work at the micro- or the macro-level. At the micro-level, i.e. on the farm, the agricultural economist is involved in all matters that are related to resource use, management, production, processing, distribution and the use of agricultural products. The agricultural economist analyses aspects of financing, the allocation of inputs and resources, all in an attempt to maximise profits. Certain agricultural economists are involved in the marketing of food and fibre and the trading that is involved through different channels until it reaches the end user. Both local and export markets are concerned.
A major challenge facing South Africa is the development of rural areas, many of which are severely disadvantaged. Agricultural economists are well-placed to meet these challenges and to work with governments to develop agricultural policies to promote income growth in poor areas. The national and provincial Departments of Agriculture are both major employers of agricultural economists, who are involved with many varied tasks. Agricultural economists participate in the development of strategies designed to assist farmers who may previously have received little assistance from agricultural extension workers. Work on developing such strategies has many elements, from promotion and market development through to pricing policies and agricultural finance.
Agricultural economists also have an important strategic role to play in the private sector. At a macro-level, agricultural economists are employed by multinational food companies and export organisations to analyse the factors that influence the trade of agricultural products. Agricultural economists' knowledge of the macroeconomic variables, such as inflation, exchange rates, interest rates, puts them in a position to identify the effects of various macroeconomic policies on the food and fibre industry, and eventually on the whole population. The multidisciplinary nature of agricultural economists' training ensures that they can converse with specialists in these fields, a skill that makes agricultural economists indispensable in certain organisations and state departments.
The agricultural sector is presently experiencing changes that present new opportunities for agricultural economists. Not only are there more opportunities, but there is also a greater respect and demand for agricultural economists and for the knowledge they have. The following are among the apparent changes that have taken place:
- Deregulation in the marketing of agricultural products
- The internationalisation of the agricultural industry, and the importance of competition
- Land reform and the growing number of new and emerging farmers
- New markets that have developed within South Africa, southern Africa and internationally
- New technologic for production, processing and marketing technology
- A changing environment for agricultural workers
The need for the expertise of agricultural economists within this changing dynamic environment is illustrated here.