Taking control of our food

2008-06-27 00:00

“Food sovereignty is about taking back control of what we eat,” says Lawrence Sisitka. “We need to look at the role of food in our society, who makes the decisions about food, how we eat it and how we grow it.”

Sisitka was chairing a session of the Food Sovereignty Indaba held in Pietermaritzburg at the YMCA Sports Centre and organised by Pelum SA. Pelum stands for “participating ecological land use management” and is a regional network of civil society organisations with 225 members in 10 countries. Sisitka is on the Pelum SA task team (see box).

The two-day indaba brought together delegates from around the country, including farmers, academics and NGOs all intent on exploring ways of making South Africa’s food and agriculture systems more sustainable. As well as talk sessions there were cooking demonstrations and displays from participating organisations

“I’m looking at the organics industry with a business eye,” says Khanana Memela, chairperson of Organics South Africa (see box), speaking on the significance of organic food farming in South Africa. “I didn’t go into this as a lifestyle decision.” With an MBA and a masters degree, Memela has made a mark as a biotechnologist and currently runs a company producing organic seasonal vegetables. Woolworths is her major customer. “The organic market is so popular with consumers that demand exceeds supply,” she says. “Premium prices are paid for organic food.”

Woolworths and Pick ’n Pay are the major buyers of organic produce, according to Memela. “They demand high quality, they set high standards for products and they are not prepared to compromise.”

Most farmers are unable to meet these standards and many small organic farmers leave the industry. “These are not emerging black farmers as you might think, but whites,” says Memela. Other factors that see them pull out are the high financial losses typically sustained in the first three years of setting up a new business. In addition, organic production is labour intensive with the associated high labour costs.

With big commercial farmers it’s another story. “For them it’s easy,” says Memela. “They treat organic farming as a new business development project. They have the capital to support it and most of them do organic farming parallel to conventional farming to avoid any loss of income as going fully organic is too risky.”

But for the subsistence farmer there are lots of advantages in organic farming, says Memela. “They can manage much better at this scale. They can avoid high input costs and it’s something the government should encourage.”

“In a traditional rural homestead you have the ideal situation for organic farming as there is compost at hand from the cattle. Organic farming at this level is the key to food security in this country.”

The benefits of going organic are clear, says Memela. “It’s environmentally friendly and the products are said to be more nutritious than commercially farmed products.”

Commenting on Memela’s presentation, Raymond Auerbach of the Pelum SA task team and the Rainman Landcare Foundation said there has been opposition to organic farming over the years and that he has seen it attacked on environmental, economic and health fronts. “As time has passed we have been able to prove that it’s better for the environment, that you can do it economically and now, recent studies have shown it is better nutritionally. So it’s healthier too.”

Auerbach cited research by Carlo Leifert from the University of Newcastle in Britain who is the co-ordinator of the European Union’s largest organic research project, QLIF (QualityLowInputFood) (see box). Leifert says: “From the scientific evidence gathered by the many project researchers during [the] past four years, it turns out that organic and low-input farming systems give us a food quality and safety that is generally superior to conventional production systems.”

Low input farming systems also got the nod from Slow Food. “Slow Food is about supporting small producers and enjoying the food you eat,” says Tim Truluck from Slow Food Johannesburg. “It’s about the ethical way it is produced, the freshness of food, the taste and slowing down to eat.”

Truluck emphasises ethical concerns around food production with particular reference to environmental considerations. “If you are faced with green beans from Kenya and green beans from South Africa, which do you choose?” he asks. “We should become locovores — as well as carnivores and herbivores — eating food which is grown and bred locally. With petrol at close to R10 a litre and concerns over carbon emissions, local eating is very important.”

Slow Food actively promotes creating “arks of taste” built around locally available and produced foods. “Slow Food is about the recovery of wisdom,” says Donald Paul from Slow Food Cape Town. “Subsistence farmers have the knowledge and it needs to be preserved. Arks of knowledge come out of arks of taste, sharing knowledge and experience.

Pelum SA will be releasing a declaration addressing the key issues and concerns that came out of the two-day indaba. These include the need for appropriate, sustainable and organic farming systems; recognition of the importance of traditional and indigenous livestock breeds and plant species; incentives for local food production and marketing by smallholder farmers for local consumption; well-resourced and effective farmer support services, particularly to organic farmers; and transparency in research to improve livestock breeds and crop varieties, including biotechnology.

“It is the duty of the government to see that people can produce food to put on the table,” says Memela. “Through that process they [the farmers] will be able to develop skills and become commercial farmers.”


Pelum Association is a regional network of over 200 civil society organisations in east, central and southern Africa, which is working towards sustainable agriculture, food security, and sustainable community development in the region.

The association, launched in 1995, is currently working in 10 countries: Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Pelum’s long-term objectives are to build the capacity of farming and rural community groups to accumulate ecological capital and stimulate farmer learning and inspire them to experiment and innovate in empowering ways for food security as well as sustainability.

• Website: www.pelumrd.org



Organics South Africa is a non-profit organisation formed in 1994 by people wishing to ensure that organic agriculture finds its rightful place in South African farming and food processing.

Known as OSA, it works with farmers, retailers and the government to further the aims and objectives of the organic movement to the benefit of producers, processors, consumers and our environment. It provides a network for all organically minded people to interact and co-operate for the sustainable protection of our natural resources, especially our agricultural soils.

Members include fresh produce growers, producers, processors, meat producers, wine farmers, the essential oil industry, the Cape tea producers, dairy, eggs and poultry producers and increasingly the processors of fresh produce into end products both for the local and overseas market.

• Website: organicsouth africa.co.za

Fork to farm

The Integrated Project QualityLowInputFood (QLIF) aims to improve quality, ensure safety and reduce costs along the organic and low-input food supply chains through research, dissemination and training activities. The project focuses on increasing value for both consumers and producers using a fork-to-farm approach.

The project was initiated on March 1, 2004. It is funded by the European Union with a total budget of 18 million euros.

The research involves 31 research institutions, companies and universities throughout Europe and beyond.

• Website: www.qlif.org

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