Maverick Citizen

Food Justice


A ‘just transition’ cannot happen without making food production and consumption more accessible and affordable

A ‘just transition’ cannot happen without making food production and consumption more accessible and affordable
What is needed is a transition “towards a food system that decarbonises, improves nutrition, builds equitable livelihoods, and is ecologically harmonious.” (Photo: iStock)

Even if you’re not a policy wonk, the concept of a ‘just transition’ in South Africa — a move towards a sustainable future that protects livelihoods and addresses inequalities — seems as unattainable as a future free of electricity blackouts.

So far, the so-called “just transition” focuses on the energy sector (the Just Energy Transition, or JET) and largely “lacks a holistic perspective of the food system” – everything it takes for South Africa to grow, process, manufacture and transport all foods – says a new paper from South Africa’s Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ).

It’s not the first time experts have wielded this critique. 

The energy focus is unsurprising “given the dominant contribution that the country’s polluting, coal-fired energy system makes to carbon emissions, the number of jobs at stake in the necessary transition from coal, and the ongoing energy crisis manifested in rolling blackouts,” the paper says.

However, IEJ authors Lutfiyah Suliman, Andrew Bennie and Andrew Bowman point out that because of the deep social inequalities in the food system, its ecological impacts and its extensive vulnerabilities to climate change, in sidelining the crucial issue of food – beyond “agriculture” – the so-called Just Transition Framework falls far short.

What is needed, they say, is a transition “towards a food system that decarbonises, improves nutrition, builds equitable livelihoods, and is ecologically harmonious.” 

The approaches to get there, rather than the default “market-centred” approach that is dominant in policy and politics globally, are those that have a focus on sustainability alongside a higher purpose: A “deep just transition” that prioritises social justice (specifically making food production and consumption more accessible and affordable, in this case) and “more far-reaching ecological changes to production and consumption”.

Food systems transformation in the rest of the world

This more holistic focus seems on the ascendant in food-systems thinking, the idea that everyone – governments, citizens, the private sector, policymakers and advocates – needs to embrace the same, more long-term view of what “success” means for humanity: The survival of the human race and the planet are our new beacons, rather than a default, narrow focus on “economic growth”.

This is spelt out from a human-health perspective in a recent series of papers from the British journal The Lancet, about the “commercial determinants of health”, policy-speak for how globally dominant multinational businesses skew and influence what drives our health.

The industries causing obvious damage have for decades been alcohol and tobacco, but the Lancet series shines a new spotlight on others, including fossil fuels, whose greenhouse-gas emissions are accelerating the climate crisis, and ultra-processed foods, whose global domination of the food supply is driving millions of deaths a year from obesity and related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, increasingly in low- and middle-income countries.

One of the many non-obvious commercial practices also highlighted by the Lancet was marketing, especially in our digital, AI-driven age: How the insidious, algorithm-driven ways in which companies reach consumers make potentially deadly products aspirational. A few decades ago the tobacco industry spearheaded this approach; now the biggest culprits are the makers of sugary drinks and other ultra-processed products packed with high levels of added sugars, salt, unhealthy fats and chemical additives, including sweeteners.

Another recent global food-systems event to make the same point about holistic approaches was “The Transformation we Need,” a conference held in Hanoi, Vietnam, by the One Planet Network, a grouping of 190 countries dedicated to sustainable consumption and production.

The conference discussed the current status of sustainability in food systems, in advance of the first “stocktaking” meeting of the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit, to be held in Rome in July. (At the 2021 Summit, world leaders announced their commitments to more resilient, inclusive and sustainable food systems, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that food systems have the power “to realise a vision for a better world”.)

‘Are we there yet?’

One quick take from these three snapshots of current food-systems discussion – the One Planet conference’s vast programme; the publication of the Lancet series, and the IEJ paper – is that in South Africa as much as in most other countries, the necessary ingredients for sustainable food systems that are healthy for humans, the planet and countries’ economies, are pretty much the same: People, processes, structures and institutions, from farming to processing to distribution and retail, that work together towards human and planetary survival, rather than profit first.

In one of the Hanoi sessions, Corinna Hawkes, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) director for the Division of Food Systems and Food Safety, tweeted a slide from a presentation by Esther Penunia, the Secretary-General of the Asian Farmers’ Association, describing obstacles to redesigning food systems. The presentation targeted an audience of 190 countries, and applied seamlessly to South Africa: The five identified obstacles were: (1) Lack of policy coherence, implementation, coordination, (2) Lack of stakeholder participation – especially the poor and marginalised, (3) Lack of political will, (4) Power imbalances and (5) Inadequate financing.

Food insecurity in South Africa

But in South Africa, the starting point is a less lofty understanding of “survival”, experts say: Basic food insecurity needs to be urgently addressed, says Dr Jane Battersby, a senior lecturer at UCT in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science, and a researcher on food insecurity in South Africa and Africa since 2007.

In a January 2023 article for New Agenda, Battersby wrote that even before Covid and the current cost-of-living crisis, more than 60% of households in Cape Town were unable to afford a basic, nutritious diet.

More than a quarter of all children under five in South Africa are stunted (short for their age) and are unlikely to reach their development potential.

At the same time, South Africa has an obesity crisis (39% of women, 11% of men – or 64% of women and 31% of men if you include “overweight”) and high levels of non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart diseases and some forms of cancer.

South Africa’s “triple burden” of malnutrition (undernutrition, obesity and micronutrient deficiencies) “should be understood as a manifestation of food insecurity”, Battersby writes, if you take the FAO’s definition of food security as a touchstone: Food security is a state that exists “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

Does South Africa have a plan?

Technically, South Africa has the intention to achieve such a state for all its people; an intention spelt out in the 2018-2023 South African Food and Nutrition Security Plan.

The plan’s stated aim was to “combat the silent crisis of malnutrition and reverse its growth in the next 15 years”. Five years in, at the end of its first term, the plan not only has no demonstrable successes to point to – the “triple burden” of malnutrition is worse than ever – but it has not even convened its first “council” meeting, which was the plan’s first strategic objective.

“We do not have much progress since April 2021,” says Prof Scott Drimie of Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Sustainability Transitions.

At that time, acting minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni led a team of DPME officials and other government departments to deliver a presentation to the Cabinet Committee on Social Protection, Community and Human Development on progress with the National Food and Nutrition Security Plan 2018-2023. 

“Both the President and deputy president were present at this meeting,” Drimie told Maverick Citizen, and the establishment of a National Food and Nutrition Security Council, to be chaired by the Deputy President, was approved.

“Despite this promising agreement, very little has happened since, over the past two years, regarding the council,” Drimie said. “It seems that the political impetus to establish it rapidly diminished.”

It remains to be seen whether the National Food and Nutrition Security Plan will be resuscitated under new Deputy President Paul Mashatile. (So far it does not appear on the Office of the Deputy President’s webpage listing “the delegated responsibilities that the Deputy President would inherit from his predecessor as delegated by the President”.

Lutfiyah Suliman, the lead author of the IEJ paper, told Maverick Citizen that “structural change is central to a transformative transition”. Further, Suliman said in an email, the key challenge will not only be to align policy and devise “viable financing instruments”, but also to build “a representative coalition that can drive long-term change in the face of difficult trade-offs and power imbalances”.

Whether the currently moribund Council is the right “representative coalition” depends, in Drimie’s view, on true representation: “It will provide greater political impetus to drive the policy and plan,” he told Maverick Citizen. “If it is truly open to drawing in civil society and not just food corporates, it could become a space to really interrogate how to address food and nutrition issues in the country.” But, he added, “we need such governance arrangements as close as possible to the places in which hunger and malnutrition are playing out, so that the perspectives and ideas of grassroots organisations can inform responses – and in turn hold the state to account.” DM/MC

Adèle Sulcas writes about food, health and science for Daily Maverick, and is consulting editor to the SAMRC Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science (PRICELESS SA) at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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