Maverick Citizen

Food Justice


South African food systems and climate change – is low-carbon food security pie in the sky?

South African food systems and climate change – is low-carbon food security pie in the sky?
Keeping carbon in soil is key to solving climate change, which is why ‘no-till farming’ is now in favour. (Photo: lovelyday12 / Wikipedia)

South Africa recently finalised a ‘Just Transition’ framework, for how we respond to climate change and become a low-carbon economy while managing the social and economic consequences. It addresses agriculture as one of four major focus areas. But it does not address the broader spectrum of food production – and the urgent issue of food insecurity.

This is a two-part article exploring how South Africa is planning its transition to a low-carbon economy, and how this plan reconciles with the country’s urgent need for food security. 

In Part One, we look at South Africa’s contribution to climate change, and the blueprint for its approach to managing the transition to a low-carbon economy.

In Part Two, which follows, we look at what climate change means for our food system and for food security from the perspective of food retailers and consumers.

South Africa is the 12th-biggest emitter of climate-heating gases in the world, responsible for 1.16% of all global emissions, and the biggest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter in Africa. 

Yet most South Africans probably feel that the climate crisis runs a distant second to more immediate survival issues such as hunger, unemployment and the relentlessly rising fuel prices. 

Despite floods, droughts and wars causing food shortages for hundreds of millions of people globally, how climate change affects the food system is still little understood by the average South African. Yet our heating planet has a huge impact on all of those pressing survival issues, because the climate crisis directly affects our food supply: droughts, floods and heatwaves damage or sometimes wipe out agricultural output, squeezing supply and raising prices. 

The impacts last for years – and the consumer pays the price. 

“When you have extreme weather events or extreme global events you create a shortfall that you can’t quickly react to,” says Dhesigen Naidoo of the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC), “because you don’t have the capacities and the resources to be resilient.” 

Naidoo is referring to the lack of fallback options for alternative crop sources because of a food system that, globally and nationally, relies on a small number of crop varieties, and is owned by a highly concentrated set of multinational food producers.

Of South Africa’s total CO2-equivalent emissions (about 574 million tonnes of GHGs), about 10% comes from agriculture – this is lower than the global average of 17% in 2018. But that’s because our energy-related emissions are so high, because of our reliance on coal (which makes up 80% of our energy-related emissions).

The greenhouse gases driving the heating of our planet come from many different parts of food production, including “land use”, as climate scientists call it, which covers the clearing of forests and other land for agriculture, and the plowing and tilling of fields, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere instead of keeping it “stored”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “South Africa has enough food yet its people go hungry – Langa Learning Journey tackles our tragic paradox

The use of nitrogen-based fertilisers in agriculture also releases nitrous oxide into the atmosphere (280 times more potent than carbon in causing global warming); farm equipment and transportation of agricultural produce emit gases from fossil fuels; cattle and food waste release vast quantities of methane (54% of South Africa’s agriculture-related emissions come from livestock); and finally growing, harvesting and transporting their feed emits carbon dioxide.

The ‘Just Transition Framework’

The Presidential Climate Commission (PCC), chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa and made up of 22 commissioners (experts from diverse sectors in South Africa) released its Just Transition Framework in July – it’s a report and a set of high-level recommendations. It focuses on coal mining, the auto industry, agriculture and tourism as the four sectors most at risk from climate change (because they are the biggest contributors to climate change), and recommends actions to adapt those industries to low-carbon alternatives while managing the social and economic consequences of that adaptation. 

Read the framework here and a civil society critique of its shortcomings here.

However, the framework does not deal with climate mitigation and adaptation policies per se. Instead it says it “provides a foundation for the government to adopt a unifying national policy statement to guide work on the just transition”, and focuses on managing the social and economic consequences of the policies to come, while putting human development concerns at the center of decision-making.

What does this mean, practically, for our food system, for which agriculture is the foundation? Specifically, how should the food sector – whose exact contribution to South Africa’s emissions is not known because food production is bundled with “manufacturing” more broadly – adapt to and prevent further climate change? And how can the food system do this while also aiming to ensure everyone’s access to enough food and water?

In May, PCC executive director Dr Crispian Olver said: “We must ensure universal access to excellent quality water, nutritious food, and health services as part of an equitable transition.” He acknowledged that “the just transition conversation” had, at that point, mostly focused on the just energy transition (known as the JET), but that participants making those inputs had “stressed the importance of broadening the scope to include food, water and health security”. 

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

Though the framework does suggest the centrality of food security and the sustainability of our food system, it stops short of specifying actions across the entire food supply chain, which also includes the storage, transportation, distribution, processing, packaging, retail and marketing of all agricultural products. 

Missing in action: the National Food and Nutrition Security Plan

In June, Maverick Citizen asked Naidoo, the climate adaptation lead on the PCC and a World Bank senior adviser, if the framework integrates the vision of the National Food and Nutrition Security Plan – which aims to “combat the silent crisis of malnutrition and reverse its growth in the next 15 years” – with South Africa’s bigger-picture low-carbon future. 

Naidoo acknowledged that this is not explicit in the Just Transition Framework. “It’s something that the PCC is considering,” he said. “South Africa should have a roadmap to low-carbon nutritional security.”

But the PCC does not make policy – the government does. Now that the framework has been finalised, it is up to the government to create – and enact – the policies that will make the PCC’s recommendations a reality. 

“The work of the PCC is largely technical,” says Naidoo. “The issues of policy and strategies are obviously also political.”

Naidoo is one of many advocating for the transformation of South Africa’s agricultural sector. 

“That is about many things,” he says. “The issues that make the headlines, and rightfully so, are the issues of land ownership and participation in agriculture as an industry in this country. It is about ownership, and the overall goal is to have a much, much larger number of players inside that space – and that number must include [more] underrepresented players – currently it’s white men. You want it to be black, you want more women, you want many more youth players inside that system.” (Black farmers are responsible for just 10% of commercial farms’ output, the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz) says, even though the agricultural sector has more than doubled in value since democracy in 1994.)

Also, Naidoo says, South Africa needs to diversify farm types (not only large commercial), crop types (that are more resilient to less water and low-quality soils, and that include many more different varieties of crops) and the transformation of energy management systems inside farming. 

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

Another voice for transformation is Wandile Sihlobo, Agbiz’s chief economist, who believes South African agriculture and the food sector in general are “at the end of the stick of climate change”.

Sihlobo says: “We are on the receiving end in terms of climate impacts, not so much the polluter, when you look at a global aggregate level. The question should rather be more on the adaptability. I don’t think South African agriculture can make a significant change in our trajectory as far as climate issues are concerned, but rather how we are able to adapt to that.” 

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

Sihlobo believes South Africa can do this in two ways: through innovation in the food industry, and more climate-friendly farming methods.

“First, we have to be thinking about the role of technology in the food industry, to say, ‘how can technology assist us in improving farm productivity?’ And the second-most important part is where farmers are utilising the land they have in the most sustainable way – for example, no-till farming methods, and making sure you’re farming in a climate-smart way.”

(Graphic: Clean Energy Wire/Jocelyn Lavallee, The Conversation)

Maverick Citizen asked Sihlobo how to reconcile the huge gap between our prodigious agricultural production and ability to compete globally in exports (we are the world’s second-largest exporter of citrus), and South Africa’s huge hunger and malnutrition-in-all-its-forms problem?

“To my mind,” he said, “the most effective way to think about that is getting land into food production. Government has in its hands roughly 2.4 million hectares of arable land, and that’s where land can assist us a lot in producing high-quality and high-value products that could enable us to create employment and boost exports.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: “SA’s climate change adaptation and resilience must be province-specific and tap into indigenous knowledge

But this seemingly clear-cut solution will be complicated to implement. Sihlobo, who is also a senior lecturer in agricultural economics at Stellenbosch University, and the author of Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity and Agriculture, explained: “You have to begin by going back to the drawing board and ensuring you are selecting an appropriate beneficiary for that land. But of course, the [key] ingredient will be how do you get the private sector to be involved in that process, because the state doesn’t have some of the skills to get the land into production.”

It’s the state’s responsibility to work with the private sector, he says, and “appropriately distribute the land to people with capabilities”, and after that, extend title deeds to the land – ownership – and tradeable long-term leases so that owners can secure financing and grow their farming businesses. DM/MC

Part Two of this article, which follows here, looks at what climate change means for our food system, and for food security, from the perspective of food retailers and consumers.



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