Friday 13 March 2015

Break The Food Chain to Build Our Humanity

This article was published as an opinion piece in the Mail and Guardian :

Food is essential to the human condition and, given its importance, food politics has shaped world history in dramatic ways. It was central to the shift from nomadic to settled societies 10 000 years ago, in the making of plantation slavery, ‘voyages of discovery’ for spices in the East, in remaking an antagonistic relationship with nature through industrial farming and in influencing revolutions from the French, Russian and to the more recent Arab Spring. We imperil society if we ignore food crises and politics.

Are service delivery protests ‘food riots’ in essence? Is the recent spate of unjustifiable xenophobic attacks a reflection of desperation by the hungry? In a country with 14 million people going to bed hungry, with 45.6% of the population  ‘food insecure’  and with a poor household spending 80% of its income on food, in a context of increasing food prices, hunger cannot be ignored in understanding these violent outbursts. The scale of hunger in South Africa makes us a dehumanized, deeply divided and conflict-prone society. It also exposes deep income inequalities and a cardinal failure of the mainly white controlled, export-led industrial food system. Yet these contradictions have been rendered non-antagonistic by our narratives of the ‘rainbow nation’, while hunger is certainly caused and is a precipitating factor of social conflict. Hunger may not be determining in every instance, but it certainly contributes. It has to be brought into our analyses of what’s going on in the growing number of flash points engulfing our society.

The current drought devastating South Africa’s maize production, while commonly understood as part of South Africa’s routine drought cycle, can no longer be understood outside of climate change shifts taking place through global warming. Extreme weather occurrences, a result of climate change, are already manifesting on the African continent with massive flooding taking place across a number of countries in 2012, and displacing 6 million in Nigeria alone. With Africa very likely to experience the worst impacts of climate change, arid and semi-arid land is expected to increase in coming years from 5-8% and water stress is predicted to impact on 75-250 million people by 2020. In Southern Africa there is very likely to be a loss of vast amounts of arable land as climate scientists expect an increase of temperatures at twice the global rate.  Basically, there is a correlation of extreme weather patterns and worsening farming output that has to be more seriously studied, as part of adapting South Africa’s agricultural system to climate change. For many a techno-fix like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will deal with climate change. In 2014, 86% of maize under cultivation was GMO, yet this did not stop the current drought from having devastating impacts. The science of industrial farming is about simplifying what are complex natural processes to control nature. At the same time, industrial agriculture is one of the largest consumers of South Africa’s limited water supply. Climate change brings both complexity and resource challenges that globalized industrial agriculture will have difficulties dealing with. Hence the imperative for a new ecological approach to agricultural production that is more easily adaptable and grounded in values to sustain life.

Most of us take the food on our plates for granted. While we stuff ourselves we don’t consider that 1 in 3 children under the age of 5 are malnourished. We don’t ask deeper questions about the nutritional value of the food we consume, who produced it and where it comes from. Yet the food most of us are consuming is directly related to many pathologies in our society from growing obesity and other food related illnesses such as sugar diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes and heart disease. This is a result of nutritionally deficient diets. Cheap food has been marketed as ‘ fast, good and glamorous’. For many in our society, with low incomes, this choice is out of necessity. This makes the poor in our society victims of ‘food poisoning’ by design. For instance the Wits School of Public Health has evidence that a chicken drumstick sold by a leading fast food retailer has twice the amount of salt and calories and 3 times the amount of fat than the same drumstick in the United States.

This past week a set of scenarios dealing with the future of the South African food system were launched at WITS, by the Southern African Food Lab. These scenarios confirm the existence of  a broken food system and the need for new ways forward. While timely, these scenarios cannot avert a confrontation with South Africa’s corporate-controlled food system.  In the context of the unhinging political consensus that has shaped the transition to the post-apartheid order and the growing existential threat of climate change, the food crisis can potentially destroy South Africa or it can assist in redefining a new way forward. The food crisis married to authoritarian populist gestures like ‘land grabs’ , called for  by the EFF, will lead us head long into a race war. Moreover, it would not be any different from the ANC’s government’s failed land reform, which has raised expectations but has been thin on building sustainability.

An alternative approach to the food crisis is grounded in a transformative politics from below. This is being advanced at the grassroots in South Africa and is inspired by rising global movements championing food sovereignty. Food Sovereignty seeks to harness the potential of our democracy and is central in ensuring we create the conditions to survive climate change through a deep just transition. It is an alternative to the narrow notion of food security, which is inadequate to deal with the depth of the food crisis emanating from the corporate controlled food system and which makes greedy corporations the enablers of the right to food. With South Africa one of 20 countries in the world with a justiciable right to food in its constitution, this requires the enactment of a Food Sovereignty Act to realize the transformative potential of the constitution. This is a crucial demand of the newly formed South African Food Sovereignty Campaign (SAFSC) and alliance.

At its recent founding meeting the SAFSC has committed to focus, this year, on increasing food prices and land as part of agrarian transformation. South Africa has been experiencing escalating food prices and food inflation. Between 2006-2008, and 2010-2012 this was a global trend leading to food riots in different parts of the world. Given the globalized nature of corporate agriculture, including in South Africa, food prices are driven by multiple causal factors according to many food analysts, including the  Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). They suggest speculation on US commodities markets, climate change and oil prices are amongst these factors. The recent decline in oil prices raised the expectation of a downward adjustment in food prices, particularly staples like bread, but this has not happened. Despite the sophistication of these analytical models they are still merely symptomatic in understanding food pricing challenges and assume a globalized market-driven approach to prices as unquestionable, despite the volatility and instability inducing consequences of such markets.

If we reduce the food price challenge to its essentials, it is about the greed of food corporations and the absence of a regulatory role for the state to protect our common societal interest. South Africa’s escalating food price challenge can be curtailed if the state is brought back in to regulate food prices. The degree and mechanisms underpinning this intervention need to be debated in South Africa. At the same time, there are grassroots alternatives that are transparent and grounded in ethical values such as trust, transparency, environmental justice, democracy and community need. Buying cooperatives, community markets, cooperative bakeries and some farm stalls are all transformative alternatives dealing with pricing differently. These food sovereignty institutions have to be connected and replicated as part of the emerging solidarity economy in South Africa to ensure producers and consumers can control pricing.

Land in South Africa is imbued with various meanings but most salient is its place in history as a sign of dispossession of the majority. The frontier wars of dispossession, the infamous 1913 Land Act and subsequent laws are crucial markers in this painful history. The ANC state has failed dismally to address this historic injustice. From the standpoint of food sovereignty, land is central to how we understand life, food and culture. Hence, a peoples tribunal on land reform to expose the shortcomings of the ANC state and people’s land audits will be utilized to bring idle, unused and common spaces under cultivation  through agro-ecology, a farming practice that places sustaining life and ecological systems at the center of farming practices. Communities, but mainly women, protecting indigenous varieties of edible plants, managing seed banks for generations and defending healthy food cultures from going extinct will be celebrated as part of advancing food sovereignty.

In short, the mainly white corporate controlled food system in South Africa, from farm to plate, is maintaining a food system for the few, is in many ways toxic and is also in crisis. Food sovereignty is another way forward for South Africa as a critique of globalised industrial agriculture, as a rights based discourse and as an ecological alternative. The transformative just transition to survive climate change and bring out the best of our humanity has begun in South Africa, from below.

Author: Dr. Vishwas Satgar is a WITS academic and an activist. He was recently elected to the national coordinating committee of the newly formed SAFSC, which is an alliance of over 50 grassroots organisations and networks.

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