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Food products on supermarket shelves are so diverse and abundant they surpass the number of species in the wild. But producing all this cheap food has not been without consequences and cannot be sustained, says GreenChoice’s Tatjana von Bormann.
A GENERATION or two ago, much of what people ate was grown in the garden and made in the kitchen. That’s no longer the case. Now food travels great distances and comes ready-made with unrecognisable ingredients. Things have become so complicated that understanding the food production system is a full-time job.
In 2007 WWF, the international environmental organisation, took up the challenge and launched a project focusing on good food. As coordinator of the WWF/ Conservation International GreenChoice Project, Tatjana von Bormann works to understand and improve the way food is produced, sold and consumed in South Africa in order to promote our health and that of the planet.
“There is a general lack of understanding of what we’re eating,” Tatjana said. “The supply chain has become so long that we don’t know where our food comes from. It’s not just that children think vegetables grow on trees; even those involved in the food system struggle to unravel the supply chain.”
Population growth over the last few decades has dramatically increased the demand for food. In response, very efficient production systems for cheap food have been created. But the food is cheap only in the immediate sense of cash over the counter. “Mass production has an important role to play in the food economy. However, the reality is that we externalise the costs of this so-called cheap food, because we pay with subsidies and costs to our health and the environment. For example, the expansion of vineyards for the South African wine industry is threatening the entire Cape floristic ecosystem. The critically endangered renosterveld is being ploughed up for rooibos and potatoes. Growers are tapping into aquifers to the extent that they are now getting salt water intrusions. We’re basically drowning the life out of our agricultural ecosystems. It will lead to meltdown. The xenophobic violence of 2008 broke out as food prices spiked around the world. Food security is key to stable economies and we need to review food production to ensure supply can meet the ever growing demand,” she said.
There was a time when Tatjana felt quite despairing but now she sees a real energy to get behind better food production, from farmers through to manufacturers and retailers. GreenChoice promotes the concept of “living farms” to help farmers face the challenge of producing sufficient, quality agricultural product while conserving biodiversity, managing natural resources and improving human health. “Living farm” choices include leaving corridors of natural vegetation, maintaining year-round vegetative cover of soils, improving rain-fed agriculture, not cultivating on steep slopes, mixing and rotating crops and protecting rivers from pesticide and fertiliser run-off.
“South African farmers pour a conservative estimate of two million tons of fertiliser (which is derived from oil) on to our soils and down our rivers every year,” she says. “Over-dosing soil with fertilizer (which is common) means a short-term increase in productivity at the expense of long-term soil health – to the point where farmers have to keep artificially pumping up the soil, which doesn’t make sense environmentally or financially. When Graham Beck Wines introduced integrated pest management – using predator insects and birds to control pests – and reduced pesticide use, they had a 75% reduction in input costs at the same time the price of chemicals rose 300%.”
“Living farm” choices also involve natural controls of predators and competitive animals. Examples include using shepherds and guardian animals like Anatolian dogs to protect flocks, and making very simple changes to hives to make badger-friendly honey.
“The badger loves honey and the way the hives were set up made them an easy source. So there was a lot of conflict between honey farmers and badgers with the badger coming off the worse for it. It was suggested that farmers raise the hives or wrap them with steel straps. Now the honey badger has to go elsewhere for his honey and the farmer no longer has to obliterate the badger.”
About 80% of South Africa’s critically endangered species and ecosystems occur on agricultural land. Many protected areas are small and isolated, so stewardship conservation efforts now focus on creating corridors between them, often through farms. “Many farmers love the land and want to be good custodians of their farms. I met a wine farmer who had started making biodiversity-friendly wine. He said visitors used to photograph the vineyards; now they turn their backs on the vineyards and photograph the veld. These days he hears birdsong which he never used to hear. Those farmers derive intense satisfaction from being able to retain something precious.”
But there are also competitive business realities throughout the system and Tatjana knows she can’t just come along with a grand plan and expect everyone to take it up. “Historically the conservation sector alienated farmers by finding fault in their methods without having to live the challenges of conversion. We were seen as arrogant, mean greenies. Now we’re working hard to understand the needs of all the actors in the supply chain. We are also trying to better understand the needs of the terribly cash-strapped consumer. For example, we’re always going on about free-range. It turns out that rural people in KwaZulu-Natal prefer ‘chase chicken’, because it’s tastier than the frozen stuff. So how do we get more ‘chase chicken’ and less battery chicken into the supermarkets?”
Meat production has a very high environmental impact, and is also an emotive issue. What’s the GreenChoice take on it?
“We can’t all be vegetarian but there are better ways of choosing meat and we should eat vastly less of it,” says Tatjana. “We don’t even know the levels of growth hormone, heavy metals and antibiotics in the meat in South Africa. Many South Africans think ‘free-range’ is a marketing gimmick. They are wrong. Beef in South Africa is mostly produced in feedlots or factory farms: ‘grain fed’ is another way of saying ‘feedlot’.”
“Free range” cows are farmed on veld or pasture. Factory-farmed cows are fed grain. Millions of acres of land have been converted to grow that grain, despite the fact that rumens are designed to eat grass and suffer nutritional problems from eating grain.
“Consumers can affect the way food is grown and transported. If we choose to buy food that’s grown sustainably then supply will follow demand and it will become more available. Ask your butcher and your supermarket about where they source the meat you buy and the conditions under which it has been produced. Ideally, get to know a local farmer and buy direct.”
GreenChoice is not against any particular form of farming, Tatjana says. “Diversity is good. But it has to be pragmatic. There’s a place for intensive farming techniques but not at the expense of the environment. We need to test and measure what works best, then aim for what is good for the environment, humane for animals and good for those who will ultimately eat the product.”
Some of the best actions concerned consumers can make include buying local, eating seasonal foods, planting their own food gardens and getting educated. “I don’t always follow my own rules,” admits Tatjana. “I’ve got one tomato plant, a few herbs and lettuces and a much loved artichoke plant. My first veggie garden was entirely eaten by porcupines in one night. But it’s good to feel I’m working to understand the issues and doing something about it.”