Perspectives #02/2019: Ecological and Social Transformation in Africa: Rethinking food systems for a +2°C world

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The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that in 2017, about 375 million Africans – almost 30 percent of the population – suffered from severe food insecurity, meaning that nearly every third per-son on the continent had gone entire days without eating. Chronic and acute hunger remain enduring problems, despite decades of work to alleviate them. In fact, the decreasing prevalence of undernourishment, chronic food deprivation and severe food insecurity in some African regions has been reversed in the past three years, and hunger has increased in almost every region.

Food insecurity and hunger are caused by a range of intertwined factors, including poverty, conflict, lack of investment in agriculture, and unstable markets. The climate crisis is fast becoming another major variable. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report, farmers will have to contend with higher temperatures, increasing heatwaves, pro-longed droughts and flash floods. As the recent cyclone in Mozambique shows, extreme weather events also lead to wide-spread displacement, loss of livelihoods and, consequently, hunger. The current shifts in climate, and those anticipated if the average global temperature increases by 2°C, are predicted to further exacerbate food insecurity in Africa, threatening at least half of the population with malnutrition. The impact will likely be most severe for women, children and those with low incomes, thereby deepening existing inequities within countries, between them, and with the “developed” world.

Yet – as this edition of Perspectives demonstrates – there are available solutions that could not only enhance the resilience of agricultural production to withstand the climate crisis but also contribute to reducing poverty, inequality and unemployment. However, many of these options struggle to be heard in a mainstream discourse that is dominated by a pro-growth productivist paradigm. The articles from Tunisia, Morocco, South Africa and Kenya show that government policy has been captured by a narrative of “modernisation” that favours large-scale, input-intensive agricultural production for global markets, supported by technological fixes such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This dominant approach threatens key resources such as biodiversity, water, and soil fertility, which are also under threat by the climate crisis. At the same time, it undermines the local and traditional knowledge systems upon which climate-change resilience and the necessary shift towards agroecological production depend.

It is understandable that governments faced with the daunting task of ensuring food security in unstable climatic conditions would want to follow an orthodox path, but there is plenty of evidence that the industrial agricultural model only delivers short-term production gains at high environmental costs. In 2016, the FAO found that the industrial “green revolution’s ‘quantum leap’ in cereal production has come at the price of soil degradation, salinisation of irrigated areas, over-extraction of ground-water and the build-up of pest resistance”1. It also concluded that “past agricultural performance is not indicative of future returns”2.

This special edition of Perspectives was compiled with the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s North Africa offices and the Transform Africa project. It is dedicated to the emerging conversation of alternative approaches that challenge the historical bias towards the industrialisation of agriculture and the food system as the main strategy to address food insecurity while preparing for a +2°C world.

With approximately three-quarters of all farms on the African continent being small in scale, our contributors agree that small-holder farmers, and particularly women farmers, hold the key to sustainable, socially inclusive food systems. From Kenya, Brenda Wambui reminds us that women should be at the centre of all efforts to eliminate hunger and poverty. Azubike Nwokoye writes of Nigerian women farmers organising to break the barriers of a patriarchal system in order to own land, to access extension services that have been biased towards men, and to make decisions that enable them to boost production while adapting to the uncertainties of the climate crisis.

In line with a growing body of evidence, other articles here call for – or provide examples of – localised agroecological farming systems whose benefits include carbon storage, biodiversity support, the rehabilitation of soils, and sustained yields, while providing a basis for secure livelihoods. As Harald Witt outlines in his article about GMOs in South Africa, agroecological farming would “empower farmers rather than substituting for labour, skills and knowledge”. Our interview with food-sovereignty activist Million Belay further debunks the myth that agroecology does not increase productivity and hence may not provide a solution to food insecurity. Both experts agree that political commitment to a fundamental food-system transformation is required for agroecology to be adopted on a large scale. Witt calls for “new champions, vision and imagination” to challenge the prevailing system that entrenches inequality and food exclusion.

One such champion is farmer Nazeer Sonday, chair of the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) Food and Farming Campaign in Cape Town, South Africa. In an interview, he describes the ongoing fight with authorities and property developers to preserve a crucial farming area close to the city and to transform it into a horticultural production zone that would enhance the city’s water resources in conditions of drought and a growing population, provide thousands of jobs in a context of chronic unemployment, ensure good quality food at affordable prices, as well as provide an opportunity for post-apartheid land reform. Hazim Azghari’s article argues that Morocco should implement on a national level what the PHA campaign envisions for Cape Town. He criticises the country’s focus on mitigation at the expense of investing in adaptation in the agricultural sector, which could deliver a win-win solution of short-term production gains, long-term resource protection, and poverty alleviation through the provision of income and food security.

Our contributors agree that, for the necessary policy shifts to happen, decision-making power needs to shift away from markets and transnational corporations back to the majority that produces, distributes and consumes food. Aymen Amayed calls for Tunisia to return to the principle of food sovereignty to liberate the country’s farming community from the high social and environmental costs of competing in the European market. Layla Liebetrau warns that misguided policy decisions in Kenya could lock the country into decades of input-intensive production systems that are vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis, destructive to the environment and will ultimately fail to ensure food security.

To safeguard and expand human well-being and development on the continent in the likely scenario of a +2°C world, African food systems need a transformation – not through a new industrial “green revolution”, but by fundamental shifts in political values and decision-making. Instead of being profit-centred, food systems need to be farmer- and community-centred and driven by bottom-up and localised alternatives to address poverty and inequality as well as food security. We hope that this edition of Perspectives contributes to realising this task.

Katrin Seidel

Regional Director

Keren Ben-Zeev

Deputy Director

[1] Moore, H. Can agroecology feed the world and save the planet? The Guardian, 9 October 2016.

[2] Ibid.

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Date of Publication
December 2019
Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung e.V.
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