Maverick Citizen

Food Justice


SA food systems and climate change — In search of the Just Food Transition

SA food systems and climate change — In search of the Just Food Transition
Small-scale farming. (Photo: iStock)

South Africa’s recently finalised ‘Just Transition’ framework, for how we respond to climate change and become a low-carbon economy while managing the social and economic consequences, 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 in South Africa. 

This is Part 2 of an article on how South Africa’s transition to a low-carbon economy impacts our food system. In Part 1, also published today, we looked at South Africa’s sizeable contribution to climate change, and the blueprint for a government-led national approach to managing the transition to a low-carbon economy. Here, we look at what climate change means for our food system and for food security from the perspective of food retailers and consumers.

The Just Transition Framework for how to manage South Africa’s critically-needed shift to a low-carbon economy was accepted by President Cyril Ramaphosa on behalf of government in July. However, government has yet to make and approve the policies that will make that framework a workable reality for the agricultural, coal, auto, and tourism industries focused on in the Framework. 

The food-related ‘downstream’ industries linked to agriculture, such as storage, transportation, distribution, processing, packaging, retail, and marketing, are not explicitly addressed in the Framework.

In the meantime, in the gap between the Framework’s recommendations and the policies that government needs to create to enact them, it has been left to the private sector to take the lead on actions to improve the food industry’s carbon footprint and climate-adaptation aspirations. 

Dhesigen Naidoo, the Climate Adaptation Lead on the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC), which developed the Just Transition Framework, says that ensuring the public understands climate change is critical: “Overall, from a carbon perspective, a public understanding of climate change is a highly-needed programme — and this is not only about the basic concepts but it’s about getting into the detail of what each of those things mean.” 

He is referring to the impacts of climate change on the food supply, especially what it means for food security on a national and individual-household level. 

In South Africa, and globally, the agricultural, food-processing and retail food sectors are dominated by a few handfuls of powerful companies, “and the just food transition needs to engage with them”, say economist Simon Roberts and co-authors.

National supermarket chains — what are they doing?

The five national supermarket chains that control almost two-thirds (64%) of South Africa’s retail grocery market — and therefore the demand-driven product lines of processed-food manufacturers — have an outsize influence on South Africa’s food supply, and the potential to improve it in terms of health, accessibility and affordability, and now also climate crisis mitigation. 

And they do seem to have the dual challenges of widespread food insecurity and climate adaptation in mind. 

Pick n Pay Head of Environment Social Governance (ESG) Vaughan Pierce is keenly aware of the issues the food sector needs to confront, especially for the average shopper. 

“For the consumer, we need to ensure a level of awareness and understanding of challenges we face. To the average consumer, climate change is so far removed in light of the daily challenges — they’re more concerned about where their next meal is coming from and talk of climate change is not top of mind because they’re looking at how to survive and get through the next week.”

Kobus Pienaar, Technical Manager for Food Security at Woolworths, is also keenly aware of the social-justice issues plaguing the food system and hopes his company’s ‘Good Business Journey’ is helping to set an example in the private sector. 

“The big thing is — and that’s where I hope that people will follow our lead — is that a company like Woolworths is built on the back of a factory and farm worker. And if we look after those people well, we can solve a lot of socio-economic issues in rural areas and I think we can reduce the numbers of people moving to the city by a big percentage. It’s a big issue that we have, and that will resolve the abuse of people, a kind of modern slavery with seasonal workers — your least paid people. 

“Those aspects in the food system are critically important,” Pienaar says. 

“You need to purchase food from suppliers that make trade fair for them — your least paid people — as well. We forget those people. When it was raining and flooding they were in the packhouses, they were swimming through rivers to go and work. One tends to forget them and without them Woolworths won’t have a business. They suffer the most to produce those beautiful fruits and products on our shelves.” 

Pienaar couples that concern with the development of small-scale farmers. “We struggle with that because it’s not easy — because of the economies of scale. A bag of fertiliser costs the same for them as for the big farmer. The labour component and the small-scale farmers need to be resolved in this country as soon as possible. I don’t think South Africa as a country is doing well on those fronts.” 

Both Pienaar and agricultural economist Wandile Sihlobo are in no doubt that food insecurity could be solved by more equitably-distributed land ownership, in order for more people to own more food production. 

More and better-designed land ownership may be a fundamental aspect of South Africa’s long-term food security. But it is a massive, complex task that could take years to implement, and so is not an immediate solution to the hunger and various other forms of malnutrition (resulting from overconsumption of cheap, unhealthy ultra-processed foods) that are plaguing millions of South Africans now.

National Food and Nutrition Security Council — what’s the plan?

Seeking answers to the more short-term food-security needs, Maverick Citizen asked the National Food and Nutrition Technical Task Team how the Council plans to address the immediate food insecurity issue. The Task Team is one of the working groups behind the National Food and Nutrition Security Council (NFNSC), whose responsibility it is to ensure food security. 

The Task Team is made up of representatives from several government departments, including the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD), and the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DFFE), which is responsible for “equitable access to land, integrated rural development, sustainable agriculture, and food security for all”. 

On Thursday 22 September it had promised Maverick Citizen a response within 48 hours. By the time of publication we had not yet received it, but will publish it in full when we do. DM/MC

Future articles in the ‘Food Justice’ series will look further into plans and actions to ensure a low-carbon, food-secure future for South Africa, on the part of retailers, farmers and the agri-food industry.  


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