World Food Day 2020: Urgent food system transformation and transition to agroecology needed to address the food crisis engulfing SA

Agroecology farmer Corinne Mngomezulu in her thriving household food garden in Ingwavuma, northern KwaZulu-Natal.


World Food Day: 16 October 2020

World Food Day in 2020 finds us globally and in South Africa in an even worse position than in 2019. The severe impacts of COVID-19 on food insecurity are well-known. The pandemic and the necessary responses to it have intensified and entrenched already alarming levels of hunger and malnutrition. It has shown the woeful lack of preparation and responsiveness of a food system dominated both directly and indirectly by large corporations and overseen by governments denuded over decades and in large part captured by corporate and privateering interests.

The pandemic has exposed the pre-existing fault-lines in the food system, including extreme and growing inequality, hunger at crisis levels, diet-related ill-health, and corporate-dominated food systems with little semblance of democratic control. The poor are facing unrelenting pressure. A substantial portion of the population in South Africa face a permanent food crisis, with millions daily confronting the existential question of where to find enough food to survive. Yet our society is structured in such a way that isolated individuals and households are left to battle this social problem on their own.

The corporate-industrial food sector claims it has been able to meet the food needs of the nation through the pandemic. But fully stocked supermarket shelves do not translate into food security for all. It merely shows that the corporate food system responds to the narrow needs of the relatively privileged in our society. For a substantial portion of the society, these shelves are a mirage of plenty in a sea of want without any realistic access.

The latest National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) results, released at the end of September, show that the 3-million jobs lost as an immediate result of the lockdown have not returned as the lockdown has eased. This spike in unemployment has hit the poorest hardest, in particular black women and rural dwellers. This translates into even less access to the food on offer in the formal system.

The right to food is enshrined in the South African Constitution. But these are just words on a piece of paper for the millions who struggle with hunger every day. Other concerns are pushed to the margins in the desperate search for food. The “progressive realisation” of the right to food has not materialised. For this right to be more than empty words we need dedicated and courageous action in the here and now. We require a sea-change in the logic of the food system away from profit as the driving force and towards meeting the food needs of each and every person every single day. Society must be mobilised, and public and private resources marshalled, to reorganise the food system in such a way that it can rapidly and effectively respond to daily food needs on a daily basis. We cannot afford to wait another 25 years to realise the right to food.

Although the picture is bleak, the crisis opens an opportunity to rethink our social and economic systems. Prior to the pandemic, food insecurity and the misery and anxiety that accompanied it were taken for granted as an inevitable part of our society, by rich and poor alike. But the immediate shock of the pandemic and lockdown mobilised a massive response of solidarity and goodwill from civil society that crossed class and race boundaries, with strong leadership by women. It posed anew questions of the logic of the organisation of food production and distribution in a vastly unequal society like ours. Initial responses correctly focused on immediate food relief, of getting food today to those who need it. But there was also a quick recognition of the necessity to go beyond relief alone, to work on more systemic issues such as why ownership and control of food production is so concentrated in so few hands, on why production is so far away from consumers, and on the ways in which the food system contributes to ongoing ecological degradation and the gathering climate crisis.

Across the country, individuals and collectives have taken the initiative to assert more direct control of production and distribution of food to reconfigure local food systems to be more responsive to the immediate needs of the local population. To be sure, this is not an easy task, and there will be many challenges and obstacles on the way. But there is a renewed sense of purpose that has come from people themselves individually and collectively taking practical action without waiting for others – including the state – to come from outside to rescue them. This is the embryo of a new society.

In these dire times, Biowatch encourages civil society efforts to mobilise to pressure government to respond effectively and democratically to the immediate demands and needs of the poor and marginalised. We call for an urgent response to the climate and ecological crises. In the food system this includes a rapid shift to agroecological production, decentralisation of processing and storage and shorter supply lines. These can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make food more readily available and accessible in all localities.

We urge the population at large to participate in designing and implementing democratised food systems that allow local actors to collectively discuss, prioritise and plan the ways that food is produced and distributed in their localities. We encourage the strengthening of local food security through bolstering homestead and smallholder production for own use and surplus production for local markets.

We call on government to support these efforts as a matter of priority, and to use its enormous market power through public procurement to support agroecological surplus producers. We call on government to facilitate local fresh produce markets in residential areas especially in townships and informal settlements to increase convenient access to good quality and healthy food. Such interventions will also reduce the necessity for travel to procure food and reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, which will be with us for some time to come.

We call on government to take seriously the international obligations it has signed onto that call for agroecology and socially and ecologically just food systems, including implementation of the recommendations and guidelines of the World Committee on Food Security (CSF), the operationalisation of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Peasants, and the Convention on Biological Diversity. We call on government to acknowledge and accept the logic of the urgent necessity for a rapid shift towards agroecology, small-scale production, and active and democratic participation in food systems transformations to meet the needs of people and environment before corporate profits.

Biowatch encourages and will continue to support civil society to deepen the diversity of collective and ethical practices that have blossomed in response to the pandemic, and urges everyone not to wait for government but to take the future into our own hands to realise the right to food for all.

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For further information please contact:

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

Cell: 082 472 8844  Email: