Agricultural Research Council (Arc): briefing

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AGRICULTURE & LAND AFFAIRS PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
17 November 1999
BRIEFING BY THE AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH COUNCIL (ARC)

Documents Distributed
Agricultural Research Act No. 86 of 1990
Outline of ARC presentation

SUMMARY
The Agriculture Research Council (ARC) briefed the Committee on the nature of the ARC and why the organisation should continue to receive a parliamentary grant.

MINUTES
Agriculture Research Council (ARC)
Dr Johnson began by giving a brief history of the ARC from its inception in 1992. He first showed a chart denoting the importance of agriculture to South Africa, citing key facts including agriculture offering 25% of employment opportunities, R15-25 Billion expenditure, 25-35% contribution to national economy, and R7 Billion in export. He also showed what percentage of this income is reaching the poor, with 15.7% of total agricultural income going to the poor. Only 9.4% of the total income from agri-business is reaching the poor. The Chair asked Dr Johnson how exactly that money was reaching the poor and he responded that he would get to that point during his presentation. With these facts presented, Dr Johnson went on to state that his vision for the ARC was to provide the agricultural industry with useful information and products while also acting as a catalyst to improve the quality of life for all South Africans.

Dr Johnson went on to explain that the ARC was currently in a state of transformation, broken down into institutional objectives, strategic and local analyses, and budgetary planning for research. The ARC is striving to improve their accountability, strengthen relationships, help build effective research and transfer systems, and improve participatory production systems. Dr Johnson then enumerated a list of seven national agricultural priorities over the next five years, including unlocking land reform, improving agricultural support services, developing infrastructure, food security, trade development and support, human resources development, and improving natural resource management and use. He said that the ARC and the research it conducts is a vital link to accomplishing these goals and this would subsequently create jobs.

Dr Johnson stated that rural development and the alleviation of poverty were the two keys to the development of South Africa. He reiterated the President's desire for science councils to work together for one common goal. The ARC has seven corporate programmes aimed at accomplishing these goals. Including sustainable rural livelihoods, intensive and extensive animal and/or crop production systems, value-added productions and processing, national services for public benefit, institutional capacity, and business development, the programmes are all unique yet connected to one another.

Dr Johnson then reviewed the funding sources of the ARC, citing their parliamentary grant as their core funding. Other contributors include commercial and agricultural industries, provincial departments of agriculture, corporate projects, and donor organisations. Funding is a major challenge to the ARC, however, and it is causing conflicting demands. On the one hand, the ARC wants not only to maintain current programmes but to endeavour into new areas and build their staff. Yet funding is decreasing and highly unstable making these desires difficult to fulfil. Dr Johnson said that the ARC needed to determine a minimum budget for research and establish a new corporate framework for budgeting. He noted that increasing salary costs are now higher than the decreasing amount received from the parliamentary grant and, as a result, the ARC's reserve fund has been depleted to the extent that there is no money to go to pension funds and medical benefits. Dr Johnson pointed out that of 1109 possible high-skill jobs in the ARC 238 are vacant, largely because of non-competitive salaries and benefits. Noting these financial constraints Dr Johnson suggested that part of the ARC's budget should be a line item in the National Department of Agriculture budget and not come solely from a parliamentary grant.

Despite these difficulties, the ARC is taking steps to promote equality in the work place, with 60% of researcher appointments, 50% of researcher assistant appointments, and 70% of overall appointments being non-whites. In terms of gender, 60% of researcher appointments, 100% of support appointments, and 51% of total appointments were female, including one female appointment in EMC of ARC. Dr Johnson concluded by restating the importance of agriculture to the development of the nation and that the ARC was crucial to the advancement of agriculture, both on a large and small scale, in South Africa.

Questions and answers:
Mr. Farrow (DP) asked why so many of the ARC research centres (nine of thirteen) were located in or around Gauteng and the others were spread so far apart. He also inquired as to academic connections with universities and other research councils and what was being done to make agri-business more prevalent. Another member was curious of the possible consequences of the potential stock-pile of British beef that may be received from the European Union. Dr. Schoeman (NNP) commented that even if new funding does not come through, research was of utmost importance and under no circumstance could be cut.

Dr Johnson responded to the first question that the locations were merely research centres and this situation improved their networking ability and did not necessarily prohibit them from travelling to do on-sight work or research. Mr. Farrow responded by noting that by spreading the centres out they could reduce travel costs and have more money for other uses. To this he noted that the Members needed to see a budget breakdown of the ARC in order to create suggestions. Dr Johnson responded that they had prepared a budget breakdown packet but somehow it was missing the final three pages which had the actual breakdown. He promised the Members that he would send that information to everyone immediately.

Moving to the other questions, Dr Johnson noted that the ARC does work with universities and technical colleges but budgetary constraints prevent extensive collaboration. They were attempting to establish a bi-annual research conference. In terms of agri-business, Dr Johnson pointed out that those data were actually from the previous year and more effort has been placed on improving agri-business this year. He noted that investment return can take time but assured the Committee that this is one of the ARC's top priorities. In regards to the beef, neither Dr Johnson nor his colleagues could give a response. He admitted that if a stock of British beef is dumped in South Africa by other European countries because of looser restrictions that it would most likely negatively impact the South African beef industry.

Mr Hanekom (ANC) noted that the decreasing parliamentary grant that the ARC has been receiving follows a recent overall trend of Government budget cuts, but now that trend is being reversed. He also expressed a desire for Parliament and the ARC to have a more pro-active and engaging relationship.

Another member asked exactly what has the ARC done for the people of South Africa. One of the delegates from the ARC responded that they have focused on making agricultural technology available and taught people not only how to use the technology but why they are using it. The idea is to eliminate income inequalities in the field of agriculture. To this the Chair asked about subsistence farmers. Dr Johnson admitted that part of the transformation the ARC was undergoing involved shifting from the commercial sector to aid small-scale and subsistence farmers. One method employed was the improvement of extension services in an effort to teach these small farmers. The hope is that this will increase employment opportunities and incomes.

The Chair noted that he had been appointed Chairperson of the Selection Committee for the new ARC Board and the selection process would begin early next year.

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