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The future of food systems

A recent process to construct scenarios about the possible futures of the South African food system has been completed with funding from the WWF Nedbank Green Trust and the Ford Foundation.

A recent process to construct scenarios about the possible futures of the South African food system has been completed, with funding from WWF Nedbank Green Trust and the Ford Foundation. The Southern African Food Lab facilitated this to understand, and help address, the emerging failings of the food system, as increasing numbers of South Africans remain malnourished and without access to adequate, health food. A systematic review of published literature on the food system revealed a number of crucial issues pertaining to the future.
One such issue is the inability of many households to afford adequate nutritious foods to meet their dietary requirements. This has become more acute in a context of stubborn high unemployment and exacerbated by the openness of South Africa’s market, which allows for international food price shocks, such as that in 2007, to be transmitted down to local wholesale and retail prices. Whilst policy interventions like welfare payments, school feedings schemes and food packages act as safety nets for poor households, they do not fundamentally alter the on-going inability of households to afford food.

The price of food has risen dramatically over recent years with food inflation reaching 10.3% between January 2011 and January 2012. Urban and rural households in lower income groups spend approximately 35% of their income on food. It is these groups that remain the most severely affected by malnutrition as well as the most vulnerable to food price shocks. Having a limited income to spend on food inevitably means that these households rely on getting nutrition from an inadequate food basket.

At the same time as households are unable to access sufficient nutrients, often their financial circumstances render them vulnerable to accessing excess calories and salt. This has helped to drive the phenomenon referred to as the nutrition transition- the increased consumption of fats, refined sugars and animal products in the diet as these become more readily available and more affordable. Coupled with lifestyle changes from urbanisation, these poor quality diets are associated with rising rates of over-weight, obesity and diet-related chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, which are becoming more serious among South Africans.
In South Africa there is an increased consumption of convenience foods obtained from take-away vendors, and usually characterised as energy dense, low in micronutrients and fibre and high in simple sugars and salt. Research holds that fast food items like hamburgers, fried chips and vetkoek, have become a regular part of the diet and that the easy access to fast food is influencing cooking practices where home cooking may become less frequent. This increasing dependence on fast food is experienced largely in cases where consumers travel long distances with high transport costs and where such food is easily accessible.  

The role of ‘Big Food,’ large commercial enterprises that dominate the food and beverage industry, is equally controversial.  On the one hand, as a result of their more effective procurement policies and better management practices, supermarkets benefit from economies of scale thereby making food prices lower in supermarkets than in smaller retail outlets. It has been argued that this is beneficial to society as people gain access to a wider variety of food at lower prices and at the same time supermarkets ensure the quality and safety of food.

However, this powerful system has been blamed for replacing traditional, nutritious food with highly refined foods, low in fibre, and high in fats, sugar and salt. Supermarkets make both staple foods and the packaged foods produced by large manufacturers more affordable to local populations. Refined cereals and foods with added sugar and fat are among the lowest-cost sources of energy in rural supermarkets, thus making nutrient-poor products such as biscuits, margarine, and oil-heavy snacks a cheap, yet varied and therefore attractive source of energy in rural and peri-urban diets.

The conclusion is that many South Africans are less able to afford healthy, nutritious meals on a daily basis and that this is more acute in rural areas and informal urban areas. An increasing reliance on purchasing food means that consumers are more vulnerable to price shocks. This is clearly a policy conundrum facing decision makers concerned about the well-being of South Africans.

With the completion of the scenarios, constructed with over 50 leaders with influence within institutions affecting policy, markets and access in the food system, the effectiveness of multi-stakeholder processes and events has emerged. Leadership from across the food system is now in a position to consider the serious implications of this and other factors affecting the food system. The scenarios suggest that a new emphasis is required on the governance of the food system underpinning the emerging policy discourse as the country struggles with the implications for the National Food and Nutrition Policy and the National Development Plan.
Flowervalley Trust

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