Insights on fixing our broken food system at

SA Urban Food & Farming Trust executive manager, Kurt Ackermann, spoke with about our broken food system, what could be done to fix it, and how the Food Dialogues play a role. Below are the six questions (and responses) covered in the conversation.

Can you tell us a bit more about the campaign and how it started?

Food Dialogues is a programme of events hosted by the South African Urban Food & Farming Trust that brings together diverse perspectives and voices in conversation to help bring about a healthier, more resilient and just food system. We first hosted Food Dialogues in 2014 and last year was the first virtual event.

What do you hope to achieve through Food Dialogues?

We hope to take what people share and feed that into the ongoing processes of policymakers, researchers, civil society and others – many of whom are our partners – so that the dialogue helps inform change. We also hope to inspire people to be more mindful of their food – where it comes from, who grows it, what it means, and to take joy and pride in participating in the food culture and what it might become.

What do you wish more South Africans would be aware of when it comes to food supply and production in our country?

We grow and produce enough food in South Africa to feed everyone, yet we have staggering levels of food insecurity, malnutrition and non-communicable diseases linked to diet. We need to think about the problems within our food system as much more than supply and production – more than how much our farmers grow and what is on the grocery store shelves. It is a human rights issue, given that we have a constitutional right to food in South Africa. It is also an environmental and climate crisis issue, as we treat our soils like an extractive industry, mining the nutrients out using carbon-intensive industrial methods for short-term gain. It is also an economic issue, with control consolidated in the hands of a few retailers and brand owners seeking to maximise shareholder value rather than the health and wellbeing of their customers or the livelihoods of their workers or suppliers.

How did you select the 10 local voices to feature for the programme this year?

We looked at the demographic and geographic diversity of Cape Town and tried to select people who represent that, to the extent that any 10 people can represent a city of 4.5 million. We also worked hard to avoid reinforcing stereotypes and tried to up-end a few stereotypes as well. It was also important that the people selected be good storytellers and were willing to share their stories on camera.

What kind of meaningful change do you hope to see in our food system?

We hope to see more local food production feeding local people and sold through a greater diversity of channels – farmer’s markets, buying clubs, community-owned groceries, direct purchasing from farmers etc.

We would like more regulation of hyper-processed foods to make it harder for companies to sell cheap, health-harming junk food to children. We would also like the support of agroecological farming practices that build soil health and are environmentally and socially sustainable ways to produce food for the long term, shifting from the current mainstream of industrial monoculture using chemical pesticides and fertilisers and carbon-intensive methods.

At the same time, food is one of the few things in life that connects all of us – everybody eats. And we enjoy food: we like to eat, and also to cook, to eat out, we use food to celebrate weddings and at funerals and ceremonies and in many spiritual practices. There are many ways we can use food to connect more with each other, which is so important in our divided society and sometimes being reminded of that and celebrating and sharing that helps bring meaning to our lives.

What do you see as the biggest challenges or obstacles that our food system faces?

Food is such a big topic – touching everyone and almost all aspects of our lives – that it can seem overwhelming to deal with, so it creates a psychological and institutional barrier to change, even though there are well-developed plans and many steps that can be taken across different sectors of our society to start making a positive impact.

The consequences of a problematic food system play out slowly. Hunger kills people slowly, with little drama. Malnutrition that stunts a child’s potential in life takes decades to materialise and isn’t readily evident in many cases. Non-communicable diseases like diabetes are often blamed on the choices of the person who becomes ill. And while we have corporate consolidation of our food system, there isn’t a direct illegal activity in that under current law. It is hard to build a movement to change something that is functional for many people, the consequences of which come years down the line, and that powerful interests would like to protect.

It helps to bear in mind that food is more than just what we eat – it connects us, it impacts our economy, our environment, our identity. What’s more, we do have some agency to change our food system – we make choices every day about what we eat and how, and by being engaged in the conversation, we can understand how those choices shape the food system. Also, we all can have a say. Food is important to all of us since everybody eats, and we each have a perspective and experiences to share that can help shape the future of the food system. Finally, when we cook and eat, we are participating in our food culture – and we are creating it. The future is not determined.

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