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Most of the world’s farmers and fishers will not be represented at a crucial international conference on food systems after mounting concern that the meeting is being hijacked by a corporate agenda that is more interested in profits than development.

The UN Food Systems Summit, which opens on Thursday in New York, was supposed to mark a global breakthrough — the moment at which governments, the private sector and civil society finally came together in support of a holistic, people-focused approach to food production, distribution and consumption.

Instead, the process for convening the meeting has been profoundly undemocratic. The engagement has been shaped by the World Economic Forum, which represents a meeting of minds between corporate and elite interests and their government allies, rather than by the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which has historically co-ordinated member states and civil society inputs on food-related issues.

The kinds of policy contributions set to be presented by multinational and national representatives, including the AU and SA government, appear skewed — focusing on ideas such as cost-effectiveness and efficiency in production and distribution, and the roles of large firms, genetically modified crops and industrial mono-cropping in this, rather than issues of people’s livelihoods and the affordability of food.

In SA the government prepared for the summit by hastily calling online meetings where the voices of small-scale fishers, street and bakkie traders, farm workers and all but a handful of small-scale farmers were absent. These meetings adopted a value-chains, corporate and industrial-farming approach.

The activist critique is that the meeting is failing to address a number of fundamental questions, including, who are and should be the beneficiaries of the food system?

The problem with the way the UN summit is framed is that it ignores the reality of food systems in most of the world, including Africa, where small-scale farmers and fishers, most of whom are women, produce 70% of the food eaten on the continent.

And it ignores the importance of local markets and the economic benefits these present that, unlike corporate supply chains, produce profits for small-scale producers and traders and more affordable food for poorer consumers. Local and territorial markets are not considered in the AU draft position and are marginal in the SA consultations.

The UN meeting is thus being boycotted by #FoodSystems4People, an international alliance of food justice organisations, which claims that the summit has been “captured”.

The activist critique is that the meeting is failing to address a number of fundamental questions, including, who are and should be the beneficiaries of the food system? And, how may the inequalities in the system be resolved to ensure genuine universal benefits?

In SA, which remains the world’s most unequal society, there are winners and losers in a food and agriculture system shaped by government policy-making and regulatory responses that have entrenched powerful interests.

Regulations introduced in response to the Covid-19 outbreak under the state of disaster declared in March 2020 facilitated a system of licensing that enabled well-connected producers, traders and retailers to carry on doing business, but stopped all street and bakkie traders from selling food; prevented fishers from setting out to sea; and blocked access to markets for small-scale farmers.

Hard times

A research project co-ordinated by the Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies Institute (Plaas) at the University of the Western Cape interrogating how the Covid-19 crisis has affected the political economy of food systems across the continent found that the effects in SA, which has one of Africa’s most corporatised systems, were particularly severe.

It cites how Gloria*, who lives with her four children in a shack in Ivory Park, a township outside Johannesburg, and sells fresh produce such as tomatoes, onions, cabbage, carrots, potatoes and butternut from a street stall, has struggled to survive. Prevented from doing business under the initial government-imposed hard lockdown in 2020, she has subsequently faced rising prices for the food she stocks, compounded by reduced demand as the incomes of her regular customers have dropped. Gloria’s business, which she started with a R500 loan from her mother, and which has over the past 17 years offered free credit and affordable food to local consumers, has now fallen on hard times.

Meanwhile, the large supermarkets, which in April 2021 were selling onions for R14.35/kg, compared with Gloria’s R7.66/kg, have thrived. The Shoprite group’s 1,726 stores countrywide recorded a 9.3% growth in sales in the 53 weeks to end-June 2021, and an even higher increase in profits to 17.2%, despite lockdown restrictions on alcohol sales. Tiger Brands also reported a rise in profit margins — 9.6% in the six months to end-March — despite a drop in sales volumes. The profits may largely be attributed to hikes in food prices, which have outstripped general inflation during the pandemic.

Greater hunger

For the poor, the effects of this have been damaging. The unemployed and those on lower incomes have been forced to spend an increasing proportion of their meagre budgets on food. In response, the Plaas study found, many of these households have cut the amount and quality of the food they are buying, with worrying nutritional implications.

Under Covid-19 food prices have risen 60% higher than core inflation. It is evident that increased production and profits in the food system can be accompanied by greater food insecurity and hunger. The state of disaster was more disastrous for some than others.

To address the problem the government should focus its policy-making efforts on ensuring the food system produces what have been described as its two most important outputs by the UN’s high-level panel of experts on food security and nutrition: the right to food and improved livelihoods, especially for those in the food system.

The government should shift its focus away from increasing agricultural productivity by shedding jobs and squeezing wages, and stop trying to integrate farmers into corporate-controlled value chains, which have been shown to take food and profits away from local communities.

Instead, it should seek to foster locally owned enterprises that retain and circulate more of the profits and nutritional benefits of the food system in the area, and should regulate to ensure improved food security and provide greater social and ecological protection. 

To this end, SA society and government — across ministries and from national to local levels — need to embark on systemic change by:

  • Replicating the enterprise model of small-scale farms and microenterprises that can create more jobs and business-ownership and foster local economic development.
  • Researching and initiating low-external input agroecological approaches that regenerate the environment and create greater economic autonomy for small-scale farmers.
  • Creating public markets where people with little capital can sell and buy food.
  • Protecting the domestic agri-food sector from international competition to meet national food security and employment needs.

The government would do well to initiate genuine steps in these directions. The evidence, need and opportunity are all there to fix our food system.

* Not her real name.

• Dr Wegerif is a senior lecturer and co-ordinator of the development studies programme in the department of anthropology & archaeology at the University of Pretoria. Prof Hall holds the SA chair in poverty, land & agrarian studies at the University of the Western Cape.

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