COVID-19 forces us to confront food insecurity and hunger in SA: Agroecology offers solutions in a crisis

Ntombifuthi Mngomezulu, an agroecology farmer in Ingwavuma, northern KwaZulu-Natal, with her sweet potato (ubhatata) harvest.


For immediate release: 29 April 2020

The recent and increasing food protests across the country have brought into sharp focus the shocking reality of hunger and food insecurity in South Africa. The COVID-19 pandemic did not cause this crisis; it shone a light on our failing food system. 

The COVID-19 crisis has reinforced the importance of the informal sector and its ability to provide affordable and nutritious food to all, especially working class and poor South Africans. When informal trade was shut down, many people in townships, informal settlements and rural areas were left without a source of fresh vegetables and fruits – nutrition vital in the fight to strengthen our immune systems against COVID-19 and other diseases.

The level of food insecurity we see is also based on the misplaced notion that increased agricultural production by large-scale commercial farms will ensure access to sufficient and nutritious food. 

It is now clear that we have to strengthen the informal food system and smallholder agriculture which can get nutritious food to working class and poor South Africans more efficiently and affordably and contribute to local economic activity, not only during the lockdown.

“As and when we emerge from the lockdown and are forced to re-build, we have to embrace long-term and sustainable solutions to hunger and under-nutrition lest another pandemic or environmental disaster find us as unprepared as COVID-19 did,” said Mervyn Abrahams, Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group (PMBEJD), publishers of the monthly Household Affordability Index.

“This food system has to be environmentally resilient and provide affordable and nutritious food. We have to embrace agroecology and reject the industrialised food system,” said Abrahams.

Biowatch South Africa works with women smallholder farmers in northern KwaZulu-Natal, demonstrating and advocating agroecology. “Late last year, Biowatch commissioned Mervyn Abrahams and PMBEJD to do research amongst smallholder farmers in Pongola and Ingwavuma, comparing the outputs from agroecological farming to conventional farming,” said Vanessa Black, Biowatch’s Advocacy, Research and Policy Co-ordinator.

 In each community two focus group discussions were held: one group consisting of Biowatch-supported women farmers using agroecological farming methods; and another group of women farmers who do not work with Biowatch and who use conventional (industrialised) agricultural methods.

Northern KwaZulu-Natal, where the research took place, was (and in many areas continues to be) in the grip of a severe drought, exacerbated by climate change. The research revealed that farmers using conventional farming methods could not plant due to the drought while farmers using agroecology were still able to plant and produce food for their households. 

“The research proved that not only is smallholder agriculture important in decreasing food insecurity and protecting households from hunger, but the kind of agricultural method used is critical,” said Abrahams. 

“Not only is agroecology a more resilient form of agriculture in times of drought, the farmers were able to save money on farming inputs and on food they didn’t have to buy. Agroecology also provides a greater variety of fresh, chemical free and nutritious foods on their plates,” he said.

What the COVID-19 crisis highlights is what the food sovereignty movement has been saying for years: the corporate-dominated, industrialised food system does not reach a large proportion of our population.

“Instead,” said Black, “an invisible and under-documented smallholder and informal food system, with little or no support, is trying to fill the gaps. In a post-COVID-19 food system the role of smallholder farmers, farmer-led seed systems, and informal markets must be strengthened.”

“In anticipation of increased environmental crises we have to have a resilient form of agriculture – agroecology gives us this. Not only does agroecology increase household food and nutrition security by providing safe, nutritious, seasonal and culturally appropriate foods, the practice of agroecology also contributes positively to our socio-economic outcomes such as health and education, while protecting from disease through stronger immune systems,” she said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown have highlighted, we must – and we can – fix the broken food system; and we have to build a stronger local food network that contributes to local economies and ensures food security for all. As such, Biowatch calls for an urgent transition to agroecology in South Africa.

– ENDS – 

For further information please contact:

Vanessa Black (Biowatch Advocacy, Research and Policy Co-ordinator) 

Cell: 082 472 8844  Email:


Click here for a summary of the food basket research amongst smallholder farmers in Pongola and Ingwavuma, comparing the outputs from agroecological farming to conventional farming.