Food Systems
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The experts from Food and Trees for Africa and the African Climate Reality are serving up food for thought on how climate change impacts food systems and security, and more importantly, the solutions!


South Africa (17 October 2023) — World Food Day was celebrated yesterday, 16th of October. An annual collective of thoughts meant to inspire action, one of its primary aims is to raise awareness of the inequalities when it comes to access to nutritious food; i.e.: breaking down why food systems are in crisis for underserved communities, and figuring out what exactly contributes toward it.

But, before we can dive into the details, we need to understand the basics, with both broken down by Food and Trees for Africa’s Nicole Ras and the African Climate Reality Avantika Seeth.

How are Food Security and Climate Change Related?

When we talk about food security (the availability, accessibility and affordability of nutritious food), what we’re actually talking about is a fundamental human right.

However, climate change directly impacts food security and food systems, especially in developing countries. When climate-induced matters arise, access to food is impacted in the same way socio-economic factors (like rising food prices) impact accessibility.

Many experts will tell you that the incorporation of sustainable agricultural practices merged with climate education that relies on both contemporary and indigenous knowledge systems is key to addressing climate change and the inequalities entrenched in the global food system as it currently is. But, how do we get there?

Food Systems

Climate Change and Food

Climate change is a global cause of concern that demands far more attention than mere greenwashing.

The increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is leading to a shift in average global temperatures, which in exchange causes extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, and heatwaves. These in turn, directly impact agricultural production.

Climate change is also a threat multiplier, which means that it exacerbates socioeconomic challenges that already exist (like poverty and food and water insecurity).

Accelerated climate change then, is more than just an environmental issue. Changes in rainfall patterns and temperature fluctuations affect many factors involved in crop growth and yield such as soil health, pest control, and sowing and harvesting cycles, which makes it increasingly difficult for farmers to predict weather patterns and produce enough food to meet the growing demand.

This, coupled with rising food prices across the world are some of the greatest threats to food security and are key in understanding the food system crisis.

As a result, communities in South Africa are already facing increased challenges in accessing nutritious food, combating hunger and lifting large portions of the population out of poverty.

For instance, approximately 55.5% (30.3 million) people live in poverty at the upper poverty line, and 20.7% of households engage in subsistence farming to feed their families. In 2021, about 2.1 million people (over 11%) of South African households reported experiencing hunger, despite the country’s substantial agricultural production.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), world hunger has increased from 150 million people since 2019 (pre-COVID-19 pandemic) to affecting 828 million people in 2021. Asia (with 425 million people affected) and Africa (with 278 million people affected) were the worst affected continents in 2022.

The Impact on Food Security

We understand then, that certain communities are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on food security and their food systems.

In South Africa, subsistence farmers who rely on rain-fed agriculture for household food security are particularly at risk and they often lack the resources and infrastructure to deal with difficult conditions, leaving them susceptible to crop failures and food shortages. Additionally, marginalised and low-income communities face limited access to nutritious food due to rising food prices and disrupted supply chains caused by climate-related events.

Sustainable Farming: A Path to Food Security

Commercial agriculture makes use of monoculture methods requiring large-scale soil tilling, insatiable water use and the application of harmful pesticides and fertilisers contribute to the problem. Around 20 to 25% of global annual emissions originate from agriculture, forestry and land-use change alone – not including food transport and energy-intensive production processes.

According to the latest report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to have any chance of limiting the global temperature rise to around 1.5 degrees and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, global anthropogenic emissions must be reduced by nearly half by the end of this decade.

To address global emissions in the context of agricultural production, sustainable farming practices become essential because they focus on maximising agricultural productivity while minimising environmental impact.

Methods such as conservation farming, agroforestry and agroecology, and permaculture, build resilient food systems that are less vulnerable to climate change at both commercial and subsistence levels.

These practices also recognise the value of indigenous knowledge systems and take a climate-centred approach to agriculture, thus promoting soil health, water conservation, and biodiversity, contributing to long-term food security.

Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA) explains that it offers a number of solutions to improve food security while protecting the environment in a way that mitigates climate change and supports those who are most vulnerable:

  • Permaculture Starter Packs (PSPs) have been distributed to various areas across the country. They include tailored and phased training and mentoring for these communities and are one of the ways in which people can be encouraged and assisted to grow their own food in sustainable ways. These permaculture and bio-intensive approaches to agriculture are customised locally to suit the South African landscape.
  • Supporting food security projects around the country and neighbouring countries, such as the Phawu Agripak Cooperative is another stretch of their involvement. This group of small-scale agriculturists recognise the importance of producing self-sustainable food systems while building climate awareness and taking climate action through greening and responsible water resource management. The cooperative’s strategic use of rainwater harvesting, greywater use and the application of swales for instance has led to their 1.3 hectares of land being exceptionally well cultivated over the years.

Strengthening Food Sovereignty

Food sovereignty means the right of communities to control their own food systems. It emphasises local food production, distribution, and consumption, promoting self-sufficiency and resilience.

Achieving food sovereignty also forms part of the solution to climate change because, at its core, it promotes principles that enable society to work with nature, rather than against it. By supporting small-scale agroecological farmers, promoting local food markets, and investing in community-led initiatives, food sovereignty can be strengthened and access to healthy and culturally appropriate food ensured, while also building African communities.

Addressing Food Prices and Inequality

Rising food prices due to crop loss and supply chain disruptions disproportionately affect low-income communities. A key example of this is reflected by the results of the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group’s (EDJG) Household Affordability Index, which compares monthly fluctuations in the price of a household food basket.

Released in September 2023, it tracked food price data from 47 supermarkets and 32 butcheries across South Africa and found a relentless increase in staple foods and nutritious vegetables.

In August 2023, the average cost of a household food basket was R5,124.34, which reflected an increase of R348.75 (7.3%), from R4,775.59 in August 2022 and a R42.40 (0.8%) month-on-month rise from R5,081.94 in July 2023.

However, the issue of inaccessibility and affordability reflects the interconnectedness of climate change, food security, and poverty and disproportionately affects vulnerable populations.

Food sovereignty, then, offers a path toward resilience and sustainability by placing control over food systems in the hands of local communities, empowering them to adapt to the effects of climate change while ensuring equitable access to nutritious and affordable food.

So, when people are supported to grow their own food in ways that not only improve the overall health of the population but also that of their immediate natural environment.

Existing farming knowledge and honouring indigenous practices in communities is also all-important and must be valued for their ability to address hunger and build resilience. Not to mention, civil society interventions play a big role in merging traditional wisdom with contemporary climate education and capacitating communities.

The importance of food security programmes and food sovereignty awareness campaigns cannot be undervalued in stimulating both social development and economic growth as communities are enabled to earn a living by harnessing their skills, thus reducing reliance on large-scale agriculture and expensive imports.

Sources: Nicole Ras; Avantika Seeth
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About the Author

Ashleigh Nefdt is a writer for Good Things Guy.

Ashleigh's favourite stories have always seen the hidden hero (without the cape) come to the rescue. As a journalist, her labour of love is finding those everyday heroes and spotlighting their spark - especially those empowering women, social upliftment movers, sustainability shakers and creatives with hearts of gold. When she's not working on a story, she's dedicated to her canvas or appreciating Mother Nature.

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