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A little positivity for World Food Day 2012

Blog by Deni Archer

Gloom times for food


I can’t help noticing that my newsfeeds over the past few months have been rife with articles about the price of food and looming global food insecurity issues. Unfortunately I don’t think they’re going to go away, so I may as well get used to them. This very weekend I saw headlines stating things like “Bread, coffee and fresh fruit have become a bit of a luxury” [The Guardian (UK)] and “UN warns of worldwide food crisis in 2013” [Mail & Guardian (SA)]. Such great food for thought, right on the eve of World Food Day, 16 October.

Culprits of the food crisis

So what’s the cause of this impending crisis, and what does it mean for us? Well, some candidates for blame include land degradation from poor land management practices; conversion of arable land to any of: biofuel, feedlot cattle feed, property developments and urbanisation; climatic causes like floods and droughts; and increasing fuel prices which affects both the production of conventional crops and their transport. In some countries, including South Africa, fertile land is being grabbed up by foreign speculators to produce food for export to their own nations – leaving the ‘host’ population at higher risk of suffering food shortages.

We can see the impacts of these determinants around us every day. Food prices really are going up. In fact, we may be feeling it a little more than usual in the coming weeks when the impacts of the local transport strikes hit the retail stores, which are intensely reliant on truck deliveries daily. The people who feel this most are, of course, the poor - those South Africans who are already spending more than fifty percent of their monthly income on food. But we’re all feeling it in one way or the other, and according to the news, at this rate it’s not going to get any easier. At this point, I’d like to say – keep calm and carry on reading.

Keep calm and carry on reading

I think the scariest part about all this news is that our food sources are so removed from us. In the recent economic boom times, which have coincided with stable climatic conditions, it was easy and more ‘efficient’ to hand over the food production activities to industry and get on with earning money from our own specialist skills. This leaves barely any of us city folk (more than 50% of the world’s population) with any kind of food production skills.

Grass is for cows

The result is that when I look around I see so much land in our urban and suburban spaces going to waste. Water intensive grass, ornamental gardens, weeds - or worse still, concrete. A story that was shared with me while travelling in the Eastern Cape this year springs to mind. An African woman was visiting South Africa and touring around our cities, suburbs and peri-urban areas. After a few days she turned to her guide and said, “Do people here eat grass?” She’s seen what I see – lots of human inhabited land wasted on non-edible plants. Instead we rely on far away people and places to grow our food in ways we know very little about, and unsustainable (unreliable, even) transport systems to get it to us.

Towards more reliable food systems

If only we could get it together to start converting some of the land literally on our doorsteps to food production, maybe we’d be able to develop a much more reliable food system. A smaller system would be simpler to manage, and would require fewer inputs - it would be easier to protect from extreme weather conditions. Maybe it would also foster a greater sense of community. Perhaps people would share tasks (not everyone wants to get dirt under their nails), swap produce, and more. Maybe it would even create micro-economies and stimulate job creation.

A fitting theme

It’s fitting that this year the theme of World Food Day 2012 is “Agricultural co-operatives – key to feeding the world”. Agricultural cooperatives come in different forms, but generally they consist of small farmers and food growers who collaborate in some way to support each other, reduce costs and become commercially viable. Co-ops in South Africa are growing. There are some that encourage the support and involvement of their local customers, and charge an annual fee which gives members priority to produce and preferential rates. There are others consisting of farmers who work together to come up with the quantities required to make a commercially viable operation. As part of our food journey we’ve met examples of both across the country, and they provide a very attractive alternative to retail stores. (See Afrikara Coop, and our blog on food security in Durban)

The good news!

Some more good news is that the Department of Agriculture has just set a goal of establishing 15 000 small farmers, with a focus on women. Their premise is that supporting small growers in underprivileged rural areas to improve their methods and boost production will help enhance food security for all in South Africa.

While government looks to improving rural production, I’d like to see urbanites rising to the occasion too. Growing your own is a powerful tool in the quest for true security and independence. In these dread times, your glass can easily seem half empty. I prefer mine half-full.

Women farmers involved in the Umbumbulu Agrihub near Durban, KwaZulu-Natal


Happy cows on the farm of the Afrikara Cooperative in Wolsey, Western Cape


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