Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an experienced agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; mkhabelat@arc.agric.za. Picture: Supplied
Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an experienced agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected] Picture: Supplied

Strong private-public partnerships for SA’s resilient and sustainable food systems

By Opinion Time of article published Jun 25, 2021

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Countries the world over are in frenzy as they gear up for the forthcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit in September 2021 convened by the secretary-general of the United Nations to launch bold new actions to transform the way in which the world produces and consumes food.

This is as part of the Decade of Action to deliver on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. South Africa has been selected as one of the countries to conduct the rapid food systems assessment through the National Systems Dialogue towards the United Nations Food Systems Summit.

Notably, South Africa is one of the countries that explicitly recognises the right to food in its foundational document, the Constitution. Section 27 (1) (b) of the Constitution states that everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water and that the State must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of each of these rights.

The attainment of these noble aspirations of the South African Constitution are predicated on the prevalence of a favourable, sustainable and resilient food systems dispensation.

Briefly, food systems encompass every person and every process involved in the growing, raising or making food, right through to consumption. The process starts from farmers to fruit pickers to supermarket cashiers, flourmills to refrigerated trucks to neighbourhood composting facilities. They include a broad range of stakeholder groups, namely, the growing, harvesting, packing, processing, distributing, selling, storing, marketing, consuming and disposing of food.

Whereas, food systems’ resilience is the ability to prepare for, withstand, and recover from a crisis or disruption. Thus, a resilient food system is able to withstand and recover from disruptions in a way that ensures a sufficient supply of acceptable and accessible food for all.

Another important concept to understand in such discussions is food system’s vulnerability, which refers to a situation when a food system fails to deliver food security or has the potential to do so in the face of future stress, whether the stress is an economic shock, institutional failure, actors in conflict, or environmental change.

Improving resilience and sustainability of food systems is critical now more than ever before as the Covid-19 pandemic has far-reaching impacts on various aspects of the agri-food system in South Africa and all over the world. There is a growing recognition that the attainment of inclusive, sustainable and resilient food systems requires the participation of all stakeholders involved in the agri-food system.

Public-private partnerships touted as the panacea for transforming international food systems are often not enough, although a necessary pre-condition. In most food systems, the voice of the ordinary citizens is conspicuously silent. Thus, the development ways and mechanisms to empower action and active citizenry in order to improve the governance of food systems through multi-stakeholder action, active and dynamic policy-making dispensation should form an integral part of any plan to foster improved, resilient and sustainable food systems.

One should acknowledge that there is ongoing work to evaluate the existing food security endeavours within the region of southern Africa and develop the understanding of the food security challenges facing South Africa and southern Africa. However, this work needs intensification. Such evaluations should lead to a review of food security strategies at both national and regional level and identify specific challenges to food security at the national and regional level.

It is common cause that the South African agriculture sector is highly dualistic in nature, dominated by few large-scale commercial farmers producing over 80% of the national agricultural products while a plethora of small-scale resource-poor farmers scrape by at the peripheral of the economy.

This highly concentrated scenario also plays itself out in the agri-food (agribusiness) sector where few, often multinational; firms dominate the processing, through value addition, and marketing of food production.

The increasing phenomenon of local South African agribusinesses, be they food or agricultural input producers, being taken over by multinational firms through mergers and acquisitions is further exacerbated by the untenable situation of high concentration.

While the advent of large retailers in the form of supermarkets may have desirable economic and social welfare effects in bringing down food prices, it has deleterious effects on small-scale farmers who cannot access such markets.

The dominance by such retailers also squeezes out local green grocers and other local entrepreneurs from participating meaningfully in the formal economy thus relegating them to the second and informal economy to eke out a living.

Addressing the development of local agri-processors and small-medium food enterprises is a pressing need in order to break the monopolistic stranglehold of the economy by large retailers and agribusinesses thus fostering broad-based economic development.

This is particularly important to the African continent given the ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement meant for African development rather than creating a captured market for multinationals from outside the African continent.

If the current trend of increasing concentration in the agri-food sector continues unabated, the intended benefits of increased intra-African trade will only accrue to a few, already successful, international firms originating from outside the continent.

Given the aforementioned state of affairs, the need for transformation and innovation systems in South Africa’s agriculture cannot be overstated. Innovation platforms are widely used in agricultural research to connect different stakeholders to achieve common goals.

Having said that, the need to intensify investment in agricultural research and development cannot be overemphasised. Without continued and concerted agricultural research and development activities, endeavours to foster resilient and sustainable food systems would be in vain.

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an experienced agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected]

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites

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