Maverick Citizen

Food Justice


Food in chains – how an industrialised system is killing people and the planet

Food in chains – how an industrialised system is killing people and the planet
The impact of industrialised food production on biodiversity and entire ecological systems is huge, according to experts. (Illustrative image: Photos: Master Wen / Unsplash / Patrick Hendry / Unsplash)

An industrialised food system has caused ill-health and exacerbated hunger and contributes to climate change, experts said during Maverick Citizen’s food justice webinar.

With South Africa in a hunger crisis, despite being a food-secure country on a national level, Maverick Citizen’s food justice webinar asked: Are we eating our way into climate chaos? The answer from the panellists and delegates was a resounding “yes”. 

The webinar heard expert advice from Venessa Black, the advocacy research and policy coordinator at BioWatch, and Mervyn Abrahams of the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group on possible alternative solutions to the current food system. 

Black laid out how this system became industrialised, with attendant harms:

“Food is at the heart of our society, it’s what we need to sustain ourselves, but it’s also something that connects people socially, culturally and in myriad ways. Before the industrialised food system, our connection to food was embedded in where we are and the environment that we are living in, but what has happened is from the late 1800s, along with other industrialisation processes, food became industrialised. 

“Because we need it every day it was an opportune commodity, to make money off, and in the early part of the 19th-century post the wars, there were also developing companies that were developing chemical products and these were looking for new markets.”

Read in Daily Maverick: “‘What’s Eating Us’ – Maverick Citizen’s new food justice podcast dives into South Africa’s health crisis

In the industries that aimed for efficiency and mass production, more pesticides and chemicals were used, and each step of the value chain became more expensive and contributed to food waste among retailers (12 tonnes around the world), greenhouse gas emissions, and killing soil with harmful chemicals. 

“So, the distance between the producer and the consumer has become larger and larger,” Black said

Industrialised production uses synthetic chemicals that affect the workers who use them. These pesticides are extremely toxic, causing a range of health problems along with runoff that kills life in rivers and then flows into the oceans.

The impact on biodiversity and entire ecological systems is huge, she said, citing a large study in 2019 that found 25% of plants and animals are at risk of extinction, as well as 40% of insects which are “the cornerstone of the food web going up. Equally extreme harm to people… there are a lot of controversies around things like GM crops and their health benefits.”

Black’s work focuses on strengthening civil society, and voices advocating agro-ecology for food and seed sovereignty, biodiversity, and social justice.


Decentralising the food system is one of the main solutions to food injustice, in which people plant and eat from their local environment, following systems that work for that environment.

Despite the glaring challenges to creating alternative agro-ecologically produced food systems, Abrahams believes that educating consumers, teaching them how to speak out and take charge of their spending power, will help bring in a new dawn.

Read in Daily Maverick: “What we should teach our children about our (broken) food systems

We not only produce enough food, but we also have the mechanisms to import any shortfalls, he explained. The problem is who gets access to the food in a country in which the average salary is R3,500 and the basic food basket is R1,000 more than that, and in which most people can barely access a balanced, diverse plate of food.

“We overproduced the starches, which is fine but that’s not sufficient nutrition… and so the impacts we see, for instance at education level, reflect this malnutrition. Most of our national budget is used on education and yet our educational outcomes have been declining over the last few years. We know that there are other issues within education, but a major impact is also that our children do not access sufficient nutritious meals. That is growing an impact in terms of education outcomes,” said Abrahams.

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The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group publishes the monthly Household Affordability Index, and Abrahams specialises in issues relating to the political economy and its impact on households in South Africa. The group envisions and works towards a society of solidarity, based on a politics of love and universality, and an economy which provides justice, equity and dignity for all.

Deadly results

Abrahams pointed out that non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure – among the major causes of death among black African women in South Africa – are the result of chronic undernutrition because people cannot afford nutritious food.

For instance, “20% to 50% of our boys under the age of 30 are stunted through no fault of their own. In 20 years, they will be in the workforce and because there has already been cognitive damage throughout their lives, these children entering the labour market will most likely earn the least amount of wage [and won’t be] able to provide sufficient food for their households. And so the intergenerational poverty track continues.”

The experts also acknowledged that one can’t offer solutions such as food gardens, urban farms and local markets without considering the socioeconomic state of South Africa, where people can’t afford transport to these projects, or the tools or access to education on these topics. Furthermore, the food industry only accommodates those sticking with the status quo, so mainstream farmers who want to switch to agro-ecology methods or organic planting are discouraged because there is no access to such seeds. 

Read in Daily Maverick: As hunger and malnutrition escalate, state’s plan to ensure sufficient and sustainable food systems is years behind

In addition, they said, corporations have a monopoly on the food system which sometimes results in responsibly produced products being more expensive and inaccessible to the working class and impoverished. 

The webinar, supported by Absa and hosted by Maverick Citizen editor Mark Heywood, circled back to one question: how do we fix this food system so that it can provide affordable, sufficient and nutritious food for all of South Africa’s people? 

After all, that is what a food system is meant to do. However, it is not doing that in industrialised form because it has been captured by corporate interests. DM/MC

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Barrie Lewis says:

    “So, the distance between the producer and the consumer has become larger and larger.”
    It’s fascinating that in the five Blue Zone countries where 10x as many people live to 100, and a healthy vibrant 90 is the norm, that the distance between the producer and the consumer is…. ZERO!

    In all five of these countries most people grow and eat their own food. They know exactly what’s in that food.

    It’s astonishing just how much food one can grow on a very small piece of ground. Unemployed? Till the ground, plant and water the seed, hoe out the weeds, keep the chickens and cows out, enjoy the most delicious, freshly-harvested food. Make compost from the remains of the plant.

    Today we purchase very little food: dairy, very small amount of red meat, chickpeas, olive oil, 50kg bags of wheat and maize. Tea and coffee, salt and spices. It can be done where there’s a will. Chickens provide us with meat and eggs, bees with honey. The rest we grow, and give mountains of food away.

    It’s not rocket science and it’s true we both had a head start. Our families on both sides were gardeners, so we grew up knowing what could be done. We had enough money to buy mills for wheat and maize, and to build a large underground reservoir, very inexpensively, to harvest and store rainwater.

    And we are passionate about caring for both our bodies and the planet. We evangelise constantly… but few are interested.

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