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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July-August 2016

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Editorial - Our Food, Our Future

Our Food, Our Future

This issue is on the food system in South Africa. Our focus is on the diverse ecological, social, and organizational processes that interact to either ensure that people are well fed over the long term, or keep people hungry and malnourished, and thus cruelly perpetuate poverty traps and inequality. Our contributors use South Africa to illustrate the complexity of this system, and they offer critical reflections on proactive efforts to govern and change it.

As we write, the country and indeed much of the continent is suffering from a devastating drought. If you were to drive through the hills and valleys of our South African farmland, normally swaying with corn stalks or other crops, you would find instead a barren land.

The drought exacerbates the vulnerability of the food system, and it impacts the poor, in particular. Many large-scale, commercial farmers are struggling to repay their loans and hold on to their farms. But they have at least some access to support, advice, and resources from their associations, banks, and large customers in the processing and retail industries. Small farmers, on the other hand, are bearing the brunt. Their meager incomes are further decimated, or, worse, their subsistence is undermined and families go hungry.

Poor consumers are also at risk. South Africa has generally been able to grow much of its staple food domestically. As this domestic production diminishes, more food needs to be imported, which is expensive at the best of times, but more so due to the depreciating currency.

So there have been significant price spikes in recent months. Activist Mervyn Abrahams shows how the cost of a basket of foods important to the poor has increased by close to 15% in the 3 months to February 2016. He also points out that a family of five needs about ZAR3300 (about USD220) to survive, but this is more or less the median income in the country.

The drought is not a one-time problem, nor are its effects limited to the near term. Indeed, climatologists have expected the drought for some time, given its links to the El Niño cycle. Climatologists are also warning that such El Niño events will probably increase in severity with climate change.

One of the scenarios discussed in the article by Rebecca Freeth and Scott Drimie highlighted the possibility and implications of a dry spell before the drought struck. Unfortunately, scientists warned the scenario team not to be too alarmist and thus the scenario was much more sanguine about the severity and impacts of the drought than is actually transpiring now.

The impacts will also have longer lasting repercussions. Many small farmers will be squeezed into liquidation, and this will further exacerbate the concentration of agricultural production in relatively few large farms, as discussed by Laura Pereira and Scott Drimie in their article. There are also worrying signs that the drought is putting further pressure on an already fraught political system. In some areas, it seems that government officials are more worried about the drought creating grievances and thus support for the opposition, than about putting in place effective responses.

More generally, the government clearly struggles to respond to the complexity of the food system. As explained by Tatjana von Bormann and Manisha Gulati, the policy implications of interactions among food, energy, and water domains are often insufficiently addressed. So, for instance, policymakers and businesses are pushing hard to open large coal mines to feed power stations in an area that is also important agriculturally and a vital source of the country's rivers.

The complexity of the food system—in South Africa and elsewhere—is thus premised upon the interactions and interdependencies between diverse elements. These interactions give rise to high degrees of uncertainty and possible threshold effects. Different actors' diverse and sometimes conflicting interests and perspectives create further complexity.

Seven years ago we started the Southern Africa Food Lab to respond to this complexity by bringing different role-players around the table, so that they could talk to each other frankly, but with less aggression and defensiveness than is often the case. Our premise, based on work by Otto Scharmer, Adam Kahane, and others, has been that in responding to complex problems, it is not feasible to identify a straight path to the solution. A detour is necessary, in order to explore our own and each other's assumptions and to allow novel responses to emerge. All three South Africa articles in this issue arise from the Food Lab's work. They show that a lot more work, discussions, and creative thinking remain necessary.

—Ralph Hamann

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