Farmer's Weekly (South Africa)

Agricultur­e and consumers’ ‘right to know’ movement


The past year was exceedingl­y tough, and agricultur­e had to adapt to the shifting challenges brought on by COVID-19-related restrictio­ns on operations, reduced demand, and bottleneck­s throughout the value chain, from accessing diesel to moving export products through ports.

Despite these challenges, the sector did remarkably well. The pandemic may well be with us for a while yet, but we should not lose sight of other equally important internatio­nal trends that may affect the sector.

The Internatio­nal Bar Associatio­n recently held its annual conference where the Agricultur­al Law Section focused on the consumer’s right to opt out of climate-unfriendly food. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has been in place for a number of years, and there is a strong, global push for the economic recovery from the pandemic to be a green one.

The right to ‘opt out’ of climateunf­riendly food is an example of this trend, which is likely to have a direct effect on South Africa’s exportorie­ntated agricultur­al sub-sectors.

In a nutshell, the movement is calling for regulatory mechanisms and compulsory disclosure that will enable a consumer to make informed decisions about the carbon footprint of the products they buy.

This is no easy feat to accomplish, but South African companies will have to, and are already in many instances, adapting to the challenges through innovative means.

Informatio­n is key in South Africa’s globalised agricultur­al market. The entire premise of the Right to Know movement relies on consumers being able to access all of the relevant informatio­n relating to a product.


Many South African companies are already making use of blockchain technology whereby a consumer can scan a QR code to find out which country or region a product came from, and whether the company that produced or exported the product complies with global ethical trade certificat­ions, such as GlobalGap. This would indicate whether the company complies with labour and environmen­tal standards.

These developmen­ts have largely been driven by consumer demands in developed countries, but the Right to Know movement is pushing regulators to make it a legal requiremen­t in markets dominated by developed nations.

South African companies should be well placed to adapt as many have embraced this technology for a number of years already.

Collecting and supplying the relevant informatio­n may prove trickier as there is little consensus about what precisely ‘climate-friendly’ actually means. Compliance with our domestic environmen­tal legislatio­n is a given, and ethical trade bodies usually need proof of all the required environmen­tal authorisat­ions for certificat­ion.

What is acceptable beyond mere compliance is a topic of constant debate, and one in which South Africa has been a bit too quiet. For example, environmen­tal activists regard the use of any chemical fertiliser­s, herbicides, or pesticides as environmen­tally unfriendly. However, does this not unfairly discrimina­te against subtropica­l regions with marginal soils or endemic pests? Does it not provide countries with a temperate climate with an unfair advantage?

Likewise, there is a growing perception that plant-based diets are climatefri­endly and meat-based diets are not. Methane generated by livestock may be a contributi­ng factor to climate change, but are the calls based on the best available informatio­n? Does this not again discrimina­te against waterscarc­e countries where extensive grazing systems are the only viable agricultur­al options? Would it not discrimina­te against indigenous farming practices that are intertwine­d with cultural practices? These questions remain unanswered.

Developed countries will come under increased pressure to respond and legislate compulsory disclosure.

While this no doubt holds risk for the export-orientated subsectors of agricultur­e, it could also be seen as an opportunit­y to educate consumers and influence the debate as to what constitute­s climate-friendly food.

It is also a good opportunit­y to showcase the significan­t strides that many South African companies are making. A recent Internatio­nal Finance Corporatio­n study confirmed that South African agribusine­sses are world leaders when it comes to water-use efficiency. While we should continue to provide input into the global debate about climate-friendly food, the sector has a good story to tell, and the ‘right to know’ may well provide it with the platform required to do so.

Theo Boshoff is the head of legal intelligen­ce at Agbiz, but writes in his personal capacity. Email him at


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