THERE is an increasing likelihood in years to come that South Africa will turn into an importer of maize, its staple diet.

In fact, we already may be set on the path to ever greater exposure to the dollar price of the grain.

It's something the government will have to consider if we are to avoid one of the triggers of last year's Arab Spring.

The economic catalysts in the North African and Middle Eastern revolutions, which saw three dictators overthrown and another locked in an unfolding civil war, were rising food prices and in turn higher inflation in economies that were not creating many sustainable job opportunities.

I am not necessarily saying South Africa is "definitely" set on such a path, but if we take a closer look at developments in the agricultural space, there are worrying signs about food security, quite apart from the rapid rise in maize prices in recent months due to poor US weather.

What's certain in the medium to long term is the threat we face in the rising cost of soya beans and the growth of coal mining in maize-growing areas.

The problem with soya is its very attractive valuation. It's a price that's proving difficult to ignore for any farmer in this global village, let alone a South African one. By some estimates, local farmers may be about to quadruple production of soya over the next two to three years. More soya production means less maize output.

The price of soya beans, used in animal feed to create valuable protein such as poultry, pork and fish, has gained 53% this year on the South African Futures Exchange. Over the same period, white maize has risen 25% and yellow 27%.

On the Chicago Board of Trade soya beans' dollar price is 33% firmer for the year, compared to maize's 18,5% gain.

Soya bean prices are at their highest in more than four years, boosted by the extended spell of hot, dry weather in the US. Global supplies of the protein-rich beans are low after weather also damaged crops in South America.

Excited by soya's valuation and being the businessmen that they are, increased soya production will reduce surplus stocks of the grain, which act as buffer against the internationally quoted prices.

If South African food producers were to buy maize at export prices, they would immediately face a R1000/ton jump in maize prices. Surplus stocks shield us.

It's a rather similar case to how South Africa became an importer of wheat. Low international wheat prices and subsidies in developed countries meant it became much more profitable to skew production in favour of maize.

South Africa's surplus maize crops continually come under pressure from exogenous factors such as weather, and a shift away from planting the grain to a more profitable food source would permanently shrink the "reserve margin" that protects us from the full effect of the global rise in food prices.

With a global population of 7-billion and counting and the mass urbanisation of countries such as China, upward pressure on those prices is not about to ease. Over the past decade, global food prices rose twice as fast as inflation and food price spikes in 2008 pushed 44-million people (mainly in Africa) into poverty, according to the World Bank.

Now that's just soya beans and the effects of a boost in its production on our local maize stocks. The other concern is mining, and in particular coal miners in the maize-growing areas of Mpumalanga.

South Africa's rush to feed China's insatiable appetite for energy from the Witbank coalfield, the most important source of mined coal at present, is leading to the conversion of arable farming land into large pits in the ground.

The pits may be providing much needed employment opportunities, but they are also going to affect the price of food on the dinner table of that very same mineworker.

The clamour to convert farming land into mines reduces the amount of land for maize and soya production, which can only push up food prices.

Higher food prices will only drive up wage s that depending on the price of the fuel at the time may undermine its profitability.

Lower profitability means less job employment opportunities in areas such as Mpumalanga.

And as a passing shot, there's the effect on land redistribution. The ruling party has already come out and said the "willing seller, willing buyer" principle has made passing land back to the historically dispossessed an expensive exercise.

The more the goods produced by farmers are priced in dollars, the higher the cost of that land will be for redistribution.

It's a perfect storm that the government, industry and other stakeholders need to prepare for well.

derbyr@bdfm.co.za

Twitter: @ronderby