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Contesting the agro-food system

9 November 2009

One of the key issues I think we should confront in debating land and agrarian reform on this blog – and this is going to sound odd coming from a PLAAS researcher  – is the relative marginality of ‘the agrarian question’ to mainstream South African politics.  True, agrarian issues (colonial settlement, the 1913 land act, ‘black spot’ removals and related issues) figure centrally in accounts of the pre-democratic past. But other than rhetorically there is relatively little space for these issues in day-to day-politics.  This is understandable:  we are for the most part an urbanised country —  and for most South Africans, agrarian issues are conceived of as a struggle that happens ‘out there’ in the countryside: the key stakeholders may be white farmers, or farm workers, or the rural landless — but not the urbanised masses.  One reason is that for most of us in South Africa, our contact with the land and agriculture is mediated through the supermarket;  these other troublesome issues burble away on a back burner and enter the national consciousness only when it looks as if the pot might boil over –  when the DA tells us our property rights are under threat, or when someone invokes yet again the spectre of ‘what happened in Zimbabwe’.

This blog  is premised on the notion that it is necessary to question these assumptions.  The ‘agrarian question’ needs to be understood much more broadly than we have done until now; in fact there is not one but many agrarian questions. They do  not only relate to the narrow issues addressed in our national land reform project, but to the structure and design of our agri-food system as a whole.   More and more, recent events have highlighted that there is almost no aspect of the food and farming system in South Africa and abroad that we can simply take for granted.

Perhaps the most obvious sign of this was the global food price crisis in early 2008, which saw food price riots in 37 different countries across the globe. Although it did not impact as harshly in South Africa as it has elsewhere, this crisis demonstrated that the post-WTO agrarian order cannot assure food security for the word’s masses even in a year of relatively good harvests

More broadly, the multiple relationships between agriculture and broader environmental issues are becoming more evident.  There is rising global concern, for example, about the meatification of the human diet, which has seen the population of farm animals, and in particular the big five (cattle, goats, sheep, chickens, and pork) grow faster than the human population — with massive implications for global warming.  Livestock farming today is calculated to contribute to something like 20% of global warming, which is more than that attributed to vehicles.

Not unrelated was a report by the  WWF  at the World Water Week in Stockholm in 2008 that  for one litre of actual water used by the average British consumer, they also used 31 litres of ‘virtual water’ in the form of irrigation intensive agricultural imports from often water-poor countries.   This means that the average British consumer is in real terms, consuming more than 4 600 litres of water a day – as opposed to 1000 litres for the water footprint of the average citizen of developing countries. They warned that water is becoming the new oil — and agriculture is one of the key ways in which this crucial  resource becomes unevenly allocated

Warnings are being sounded about the environmental toxicity of industrialised agriculture, with the ‘fertilizer treadmill’ in the world’s grainlands rapidly reducing microbial biodiversity.  Only in the last months, worrying reports have come out about a massive decline of bee populations in Europe, the UK and the United States.  Suddenly the warning sounded by Rachel Carson more than 40 years ago in her famous book Silent Spring, the book that put the modern environmental movement on the map, seems uncomfortably close to coming true. We are indeed looking at a world in which the overuse of pesticides and herbicides may be fundamentally disrupting the underlying ecosystems on which plant propagation depends.

How are these crises to be met? When world leaders met at the FAO summit in Rome in May this year, their answer was essentially to call for ‘more of the same:’  deepen the green revolution, intensify agricultural productivity.  Others in the anti-globalization movement say that the problem lies with the international food order itself, and that it needs to be fundamentally revised if our children are not to starve.

None of these are questions we can ignore.In her book Women Learning the NAFTA food chain: Women Food and Globalization, Deborah Barndt captured many of these issues very well. She pointed out that food plays a unique role in connecting us to broader global systems and processes.  On the one hand it is ‘the intimate commodity;’ it is the one commodity that, in the act of consumption, becomes part of our bodies.  On the other, these choices connect us directly to often distant locales, entities, processes, and ecosystems.   Decisions about how we produce, how we consume, and how food chains are regulated and shaped have a politics, and have consequences that are often transmitted across great distances to impact on people’s lives.

Mary Simons, a feminist teacher of politics at the University of Cape Town, used to thrill her first years by remarking that ‘when a man and a woman go to bed together – that’s politics.’ Now I might say, slightly less dramatically but as accurately, that when you buy a packet of organic carrots at Woolworths, or when you dig into a beef steak at the Spur …  or when you plant a seed … that’s politics. I hope that on this website, we can  connect the politics of land reform narrowly conceived – the politics of land transfers, land rights, and local livelihoods, with the broader contestation of the Southern African agro-food system.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 November 2009 11:20 am

    Andries raises some fundamentally important points, which are well answered by Michael. He quotes Nadia Scialabba (2007) of FAO, who also points out that Food Security in developing economies is often helped more by organic farming than high external input systems, which create dependence and pollute natural systems.

    At a recent Agricultural Research and Development Conference on Innovation at the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, there was sharp debate on the role of conservation agriculture and organic farming methods, with some scientists (notably Professor Ken Giller of Wageningen) claiming that organic farming does not work in the poorest of soils, while others (including my own paper) showed how across the board in developing economies, organic farming systems are making a significant difference to the ability of small scale farmers, to feed themselves, to improve rural livelihoods, and to enter the market place with world-class products, exploiting Africa’s comparative advantage. As many African farmers have not used chemical fertilisers and poisons, it is relatively easy for them to convert to organic farming.

    However, as my paper pointed out, organic certification poses a major barrier to these farmers in entering the market place, and I proposed a support network for helping to set up Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS), which bring together producer and consumer into local networks which promote social solidarity (such as that run in Cape Town by Abalimi Bezekhaya, though this is not yet formalised as a PGS).

    Andries reminds us of Rachel Carson’s warnings and predictions in Silent Spring; Dr Carson already warned us in 1962 (p.166-7 in my battered Hamish Hamilton Edition) that both herbicides such as 2.4-D, and chlorinated hydrocarbons such as DDT uncouple the phosphorylation process, preventing energy being released from ATP during respiration, and yet proponents of 2.4-D continue to claim that it is almost non-toxic, and DDT is again being used in South Africa and in Uganda in spite of the many alternative substances which can be used to control malaria mosquitoes with less environmental threats, and only slightly higher initial costs!

    And yet, scientists such as Ken Giller, while arguing that we must become more sensitive to long-term considerations such as water pollution, toxic effects and dependency, often give the impression that organic methods cannot feed Africa.

    When challenged, they immediately qualify their statements, saying that what they mean is that there are certain situations (such as the exceptionally poor soils which he is working with) where organic fertilisation is not the most efficient approach. How can we help scientists to evaluate organic methods, and give these credit where credit is due? The old scientific prejudices regarding organic approaches as “muck and mystery” are so ingrained, it is difficult to shift them. The evidence of the success of organic methods in practice is now so over-whelming that it would seem that the problem is not evidence, but an unwillingness to look at certain evidence, an in-grained resistance to this long-overdue paradigm shift.

    I have recently been re-reading my (equally battered) 1987 Edition of “Our Common Future” (the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway) which built on the awareness following Rachel Carson’s book and paved the way for the 1992 Rio World Summit on the Environment and Development. The “Brundtland Report” proposed a Global Agenda for Change, based on four years of work from 1983-7, and showed how, in moving towards sustainable development, it would be essential that teachers, private enterprise, NGOs (or CSOs, as I prefer to call them), scientists and citizen groups would need to take action to move from “One earth to One World”. In her overview (p.3) she says clearly “Poverty is a major cause and effect of global environmental problems. It is therefore futile to attempt to deal with environmental problems without a broader perspective that encompasses the factors underlying world poverty and international inequality”.

    The more recent work of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD, see , in answering the question set to it after the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development: “How can we reduce hunger and poverty?” builds on the insights of Carson and Brundtland. The Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) Report (of which I was a reviewer), lists under “Challenges and options”:
    • The cost of fertilisation can [also] be reduced through the intensified use of organic fertiliser.
    • Agrochemicals, especially some synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, have caused negative effects on human and animal health and the environment in some parts of SSA… The economic, environmental and health costs associated with greater use of agrochemicals suggest that AKST options involve reorienting research away from high-input blanket doses towards technologies that enable technically efficient applications specific to local soil conditions (Chapter 5) and towards integrated nutrient management approaches. And later:
    • Current education, training and extension structures are incompatible with innovative approaches to AKST development. Most agricultural scientists in SSA are trained and rewarded within a narrow discipline, reflecting the typically linear approaches to research and extension that value “formal” scientific research and learning over more tacit forms of farmer learning and local and traditional knowledge.

    Like the Brundtland Report, IAASTD worked for four years, but a staggering 400 scientists were involved with this effort.

    But who supports a broader approach to farmer training and systems research and extension? The AgriSETA system makes it difficult to teach organic farming and almost impossible to mentor farmers, and most of the provincial departments of agriculture are so mired in the mechanics of schemes designed to promote conventional technologies, that they are not prepared to consider innovative approaches. The Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are about the only ones willing to try out promising new approaches, and their short term project funding approach does not lead to building local capacity.

    When will government take organic farming seriously, learning from the 300,000 certified organic farmers in Uganda, who, last year, supplied their households and the local market, and exported US$ 22 million worth of coffee, cotton, pineapples and bananas?

  2. Michael Vunyingah permalink
    11 November 2009 9:35 am

    The land question remains a very important agrarian question in the South African society as far as poverty allevaition and food security is concern.Though alot of debate has been on which agricultural model to follow (commercial or family farm model). Even though South African commercial agricultural sector is very vibrant, approximately half of South African households espercially in the rural areas and those headed by women are food insecured. There is the need for a paradigmatic shift in the agrarian discourse however. The rise and fall of development or modernisation theory is quite evident in the agrarian discourse today. Agriculture is in a state of transition in most European countries. Both Western and Eastern European countries gave great attention to the development of their agricultural sectors after World War 1. Though by the 1960s, food production in the region was enough to feed the entire population of Europe, it did not necessarily ensure food security for all sectors of the population. These countries are grappling with problems related to intensive agriculture such as environmental quality, nature conservation, food safety, farm diversification and human development.

    It is time to turn back the clock to smallholder organic farming sytsems to resolve issues of food security (food safety). Scialabba (2007) clarified that the concept of organic agriculture does not mean turning back the clock to a “primitive” mode of farming. Organic agriculture offers but a modern ecologically intensive farming system that can perform successfully without any synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. This is achieved through a combination of techniques including intercropping with nitrogen-fixing legumes (or with other crops that produce synergies), crops rotation, biological pest control, use of locally adapted seeds/breeds and the re-integration of animals on farms. In the process, the stability and resilience of the surrounding ecosystem is improved rather than depleted as may be the case when high levels of artificial inputs are used. An ecological balance that maximises nutrient and energy cycling is established between soil, plants, animals – and humans.

    The idea that science and reason could lead humanity toward perfect may seem a rather naive notion these days. It is time to reinvogorate the traditional farming systems for sustainable agricultural development and food security in South Africa.

    The French revolution of 1789 was centred arround agrarian issues!

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