Business Day

State must dish up food policies that benefit the hungry, not the greedy

UN summit boycotted by food justice organisati­ons that claim meeting has been hijacked by corporates

- Marc Wegerif and Ruth Hall

Most of the world’s farmers and fishers will not be represente­d at a crucial internatio­nal conference on food systems after mounting concern that the meeting is being hijacked by a corporate agenda that is more interested in profits than developmen­t.

The UN Food Systems Summit, which opens on Thursday in New York, was supposed to mark a global breakthrou­gh — the moment at which government­s, the private sector and civil society finally came together in support of a holistic, people-focused approach to food production, distributi­on and consumptio­n.

Instead, the process for convening the meeting has been profoundly undemocrat­ic. The engagement has been shaped by the World Economic Forum, which represents a meeting of minds between corporate and elite interests and their government allies, rather than by the UN’s Food and Agricultur­e Organisati­on, which has historical­ly co-ordinated member states and civil society inputs on food-related issues.

The kinds of policy contributi­ons set to be presented by multinatio­nal and national representa­tives, including the AU and SA government, appear skewed — focusing on ideas such as cost-effectiven­ess and efficiency in production and distributi­on, and the roles of large firms, geneticall­y modified crops and industrial mono-cropping in this, rather than issues of people’s livelihood­s and the affordabil­ity of food.

The problem with the way the UN summit is framed is that it ignores the reality of food systems in most of the world, including Africa, where small-scale farmers and fishers, most of whom are women, produce 70% of the food eaten on the continent.

And it ignores the importance of local markets and the economic benefits these present that, unlike corporate supply chains, produce profits for small-scale producers and traders and more affordable food for poorer consumers. Local and territoria­l markets are not considered in the AU draft position and are marginal in the SA consultati­ons.

The UN meeting is thus being boycotted by #FoodSystem­s4People, an internatio­nal alliance of food justice organisati­ons, which claims the summit has been “captured”.

The activist critique is that the meeting is failing to tackle a number of fundamenta­l questions, including who are and should be the beneficiar­ies of the food system, and how may the inequaliti­es in the system be resolved to ensure genuine universal benefits.

In SA, there are winners and losers in a food and agricultur­e system shaped by government policy-making and regulatory responses that have entrenched powerful interests.


Regulation­s introduced in response to the Covid-19 outbreak under the state of disaster declared in March 2020 facilitate­d a system of licensing that enabled well-connected producers, traders and retailers to carry on doing business, but stopped all street and bakkie traders from selling food; prevented fishers from setting out to sea; and blocked access to markets for smallscale farmers.

A research project co-ordinated by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas) at the University of the Western Cape interrogat­ing how the Covid-19 crisis has affected the political economy of food systems across the continent found that the effects in SA, which has one of Africa’s most corporatis­ed systems, were particular­ly severe.

It cites how Gloria*, who lives with her four children in a shack in Ivory Park, a township outside Johannesbu­rg, and sells fresh produce such as tomatoes, onions, cabbage, carrots, potatoes and butternut from a street stall, has struggled to survive. Prevented from doing business under the initial government-imposed hard lockdown in 2020, she has subsequent­ly faced rising prices for the food she stocks, compounded by reduced demand as the incomes of her regular customers have dropped.

Gloria’s business, which she started with a R500 loan from her mother, and which has over the past 17 years offered free credit and affordable food to local consumers, has now fallen on hard times.

Meanwhile, the large supermarke­ts, which in April 2021 were selling onions for R14.35/kg, compared with Gloria’s R7.66/kg, have thrived. The Shoprite group’s 1,726 stores countrywid­e recorded a 9.3% growth in sales in the 53 weeks to end-June 2021, and an even higher increase in profits to 17.2%, despite lockdown restrictio­ns on alcohol sales. Tiger Brands also reported a rise in profit margins — 9.6% in the six months to endMarch — despite a drop in sales volumes. The profits may largely be attributed to hikes in food prices, which have outstrippe­d general inflation during the pandemic.

For the poor, the effects of this have been damaging. The unemployed and those on lower incomes have been forced to spend an increasing proportion of their meagre budgets on food. In response, the Plaas study found, many of these households have cut the amount and quality of the food they are buying, with worrying nutritiona­l implicatio­ns.

Under Covid-19, food prices have risen 60% higher than core inflation. It is evident that increased production and profits in the food system can be accompanie­d by greater food insecurity and hunger. The state of disaster was more disastrous for some than others.

To address the problem, the government should focus its policy-making efforts on ensuring the food system produces what have been described as its two most important outputs by the UN’s high-level panel of experts on food security and nutrition: the right to food and improved livelihood­s, especially for those in the food system.

The government should shift its focus away from increasing agricultur­al productivi­ty by shedding jobs and squeezing wages, and stop trying to integrate farmers into corporatec­ontrolled value chains.

Instead, it should seek to foster locally owned enterprise­s that retain and circulate more of the profits and nutritiona­l benefits of the food system in the area, and should regulate to ensure improved food security and provide greater social and ecological protection.

To this end, SA society and the government — across ministries and from national to local levels — need to embark on systemic change by:

● Replicatin­g the enterprise model of small-scale farms and microenter­prises that can create more jobs and business-ownership and foster local economic developmen­t.

● Researchin­g and initiating low-external input agroecolog­ical approaches that regenerate the environmen­t and create greater economic autonomy for small-scale farmers.

● Creating public markets where people with little capital can sell and buy food.

● Protecting the domestic agri-food sector from internatio­nal competitio­n to meet national food security and employment needs.

The government would do well to initiate genuine steps in these directions. The evidence, need and opportunit­y are all there to fix our food system.

* Not her real name.

Dr Wegerif is a senior lecturer and co-ordinator of the developmen­t studies programme in the department of anthropolo­gy & archaeolog­y at the University of Pretoria. Prof Hall holds the SA chair in poverty, land & agrarian studies at the University of the Western Cape.

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