The possible threat of a "food crisis" has the potential to "exacerbate" the gloomy global and domestic economic conditions, Reserve Bank governor Gill Marcus warned at a function on Tuesday night.
She noted that recent increases in agricultural commodities including grains and soya beans could pose challenges to countries facing economic slowdown.
South Africa’s wheat futures prices had risen 20%, while maize had increased by 30% since the beginning of June, as a result of severe drought in the US, the governor told the function.
If these conditions continued, the challenge for countries would become "food availability" as opposed to food affordability, Ms Marcus said.
The governor’s comments echo those of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) earlier this month, which warned of a looming food crisis similar to the one experienced in 2007-08, if countries reacted to grain shortages by restricting exports.
The FAO’s food price index, which measures monthly price changes for a food basket of cereals, oil seeds, dairy, meat and sugar, averaged 213 points in July, up 6% from 201 points in June.
Speaking on the domestic economy on Tuesday, Ms Marcus said South Africa faced an "extremely challenging environment" that was dependent on external developments.
She referred to the challenges as "daunting" and said growth for 2012 would be lower than initial expectations.
Forecasts were for South Africa to grow 2.7% in 2012 and 3.8% in 2013, with risks to these outlooks being on the downside.
South Africa would need a number of years of significant growth to get back to pre-crisis unemployment levels, she said.
South African unemployment, which was recorded at 24.9% in the second quarter, was not cyclical but structural, Ms Marcus said.
"Even if we grew at higher levels it would be difficult to absorb all the unemployed," she said.
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