The corporatization of food in South Africa

We can only end hunger when people have control over what they eat and how that food is produced.

Photo by Anaya Katlego on Unsplash

When our priority is growing food for profit, people will go hungry. It is simply more profitable to grow food for retail and export than it is to feed people living in poverty. In South Africa, 10.4 million people had inadequate access to food in 2017. This is why the marginalized need to have more control over food production.

As defined by the international peasant movement La Via Campesina, food sovereignty is the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and the right of people to define their own food and agriculture systems. People need to have control over what they eat and how that food is produced.

You might have heard over and again that South Africa “produces enough food for everyone to eat and the problem is rather that of distribution.” This kind of thinking has led to food security initiatives that distribute food parcels, vouchers, and various other forms of food aid at great cost. Despite this, we still face alarming levels of hunger. For example, one in four South African children go to bed hungry.

We need to admit that the problem of hunger in South Africa is linked to the structure of production itself. Ultimately, if we cede control over food production to corporations, they will make decisions that maximize their profit over decisions that address hunger. Corporate control over food production in South Africa manifests in many ways. For example, agriculture production favors the production of crops for export. Agricultural export earned South African food corporations a record US$10.6 billion in 2018.

Corporate production of food also leads to waste. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) about 10 million tons of food is wasted in South Africa on an annual basis. Much of this waste takes place during the production process with the losses amounting to one-third of total food production.

Furthermore, the corporate sector controls South Africa’s seed supply chain. A study of seed access in South Africa found that four companies have near monopoly control of the country’s seed market for crucial crops such as maize, sunflower, and wheat. That means the interests of these corporations determine what happens with these crops, which are staples for South African diets.

Moreover, food processing is firmly in the hands of a few corporate entities. A study by Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS) found that four companies had a 95% market share in the processing of breakfast foods and starch products in South Africa. Large companies control entire aspects of the supply chain from when seeds are planted in the ground to when they are transported to retailers. Decisions by corporations will inevitably create conditions of hunger because food will be exported or wasted, and small-scale farmers struggle to access seeds due to the monopoly of a few companies.

Even more worrying is that policies by the South African government help to entrench the corporatization of food. For example, the government subsidizes Genetically Modified (GM) maize, halving its price in the process. The increasing importance of GM maize has been linked to declining food sovereignty in Africa.

However, things don’t need to be this way.

In Chitungwiza, a dormitory town situated 30 kilometers south east of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, the Kuchengetana Relief Kitchen provides breakfast porridge and a hot meal supper every day. They produce culturally relevant food at a lower cost than food parcels, maximizing financial donations, while also being sustainable for future food needs.

The Wits Food Sovereignty Centre grows food using a method called agroecology, a sustainable farming practice that works with local ecosystems and available natural resources instead of using chemicals and battling nature. A United Nations report found that agroecology controls pests, raises food yield, reduces rural poverty, and is resilient to climate change.

So, a call for food gardens, fruit trees, and organic markets is very much a revolutionary idea, which redistributes power from the corporate capitalist sector to the people. I was part of a group that launched a food campaign at the University of the Free State in 2018 to encourage the institution to grow food—instead of buying it from corporations. We have come a long way. There is now a small food garden, approval for fruit trees and a push for the establishment of community kitchens and an organic market.

Similar movements are growing across the country through the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and the Climate Justice Charter, an ambitious plan to move South Africa away from corporate control of water and food to end hunger, thirst, pollution, and climate harm. More than 220 organizations have endorsed this charter, which was launched this year on World Food Day, October 16.

The South African government recently announced a plan to distribute nearly 900 farms totaling 700,000 hectares of land. Already, smallholder farmers and their communities are growing food, but struggle for food sovereignty in South Africa wages on toward ending corporate control of the food system and specifically diverting government support from corporations to ensure that food sovereignty thrives.

Further Reading