The Right to Food: 'A Hungry Man is an Angry Man'

By Glenn Ashton · 12 Aug 2011

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Picture: SACSIS
Picture: SACSIS

South Africa's agricultural landscape remains essentially unchanged. Landed white farmers pursue an industrial farming model that relies on high external inputs. Farm ownership patterns have changed little, despite continual promises. Food security remains unresolved. Significant sectors of our people, particularly women and children, remain under or malnourished. To top it off, the ecological impacts of our farming – soil erosion, high water use and abstraction, overuse of chemicals, pesticides, fertilisers and fossil fuels – have increased. 

We should, accordingly, take note when knowledgeable people like the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food visit us to analyse where we are going wrong. Dr Olivier de Schutter visited South Africa in June this year and provided a polite but critical review of our national food security and agricultural policies. He has provided a great service to our country by focussing his considerable experience on our troubled reality.

Given our failures to date, we really ought to take his perspectives to heart. He notes for instance that as a nation we are at urgent risk because we have not properly provided adequate food security to the population. The United Nations defines food security as having access to sufficient and diverse food to maintain good health. Under this broad definition between 20% and 40% of South Africans are at risk.

De Schutter's remarks highlight the real lack of delivery to our most vulnerable members of society. Otherwise, how does a fifth of the population have severely inadequate access to food, one third of children experience hunger and two-thirds experience income poverty? These risks remain powerfully linked to race, gender and where we live. 

De Schutter questions why, for instance we have failed to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights? Why have we failed to recognise the UN strategy on food security, provided after 4 years of study by 400 agricultural experts and scientists? The fact is that we are good at stating policy but poor at implementing it. We are told our present land reform policies are unworkable. Likewise our agricultural policy will fail if we do not improve support and reform our food marketing systems.

Central to this is the fact that our constitutional right to food has not been written into law. There is no binding obligation of the state to deliver on the right to food. If we do not render the right to food as a state obligation, one that specifically targets those most marginalised sectors of society, our constitutional obligations remain unfulfilled promises. De Schutter insists that making the right a legal obligation “is the one single initiative that ensures coherence across policies and consistency across time.”

In order to implement this right, all sectors of society - trades union, landless peoples organisations, farmers organisations and NGOs must be included and consulted in order to provide sustainable solutions. There must also be complete political accountability by government to ensure delivery.

The report also reveals some uncomfortable facts. For instance, while very little land has been transferred the number of white farmers has halved. The remaining white farmers own more land than ever. Nearly a third of the land that the state restored to black ownership has been leased or sold back to white farmers. This is not the failure of the new farmers; it is indicative of a practical and political failure to implement workable policies for the right to food. 

Another real failure has been that of reforming agricultural markets. These remain dominated by a few monopolistic retailers with rigid, established supply chains. Agricultural trading systems, based around our three centralised municipal markets and a tightly controlled grain market - dominated by commodity traders - create almost insurmountable barriers to entry.

De Schutter suggests we should realign the market by using our Competition Act and Commission to dismantle market dominance and obstacles. Local market networks must be created and supported in order to support emerging rural and urban farmers and enable fair competition. Formal training must be provided, along with incentives. The upliftment of small and emerging farmers must be prioritised. 

He also suggests we should enhance our social security networks and extend them to a basic income grant. This would provide far greater food access and shift social participation first toward the semi-formal economy and ultimately the formal one.

If the state pursued policies set out in the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act, small farmers would be prioritised to, for instance, supply school feeding and poverty relief programmes. The support and establishment of improved and more open regional and rural markets would bring down the costs of nutritious local food and replace the often, poor quality food purchased from the metropolitan markets.

With increased urbanisation, it is also critical to reform urban food markets. We must move away from our ill considered, massive, centralised metropolitan market model. If we devolve these into local community markets and food banks, cheaper, fresher food will reach more people. 

These initiatives are essential to address our high rates of HIV, AIDS, TB and diet related health problems like hypertension and diabetes. The reason that fast and processed food is often cheaper is because the marketplace has been manipulated to suit industrial food processors over and above local, fresh food producers. This can and must change.

It is also wrong how the primary government platform for agricultural reform, the Comprehensive Agricultural Reform Programme (CASP), has on the one hand favoured larger projects for better resourced farmers, while on the other, it has serially failed to provide support to subsistence farmers, where the need is greatest. More than half of CASP funds, a billion Rand, have gone to less than 3% of total beneficiaries. Less than 0.02% of small, rural subsistence farmers have derived any benefit at all. Administration costs are excessive. CASP needs urgent reassessment.

De Schutter's report highlights many disparities in what he terms our “three tier” agricultural sector. The first, with around 35,000, mainly white farmers on large farms, produces 95% of output on 87% of the land. Second comes some 200,000 mainly black emerging farmers, the primary beneficiaries of land reform, restitution and CASP. Finally come the still marginalised 2.5 million households that practise small-scale subsistence farming.

If we are going to meaningfully address our food security backlog it is this third group that must be targeted and supported, not only the first two. We need both rural and urban food security programmes, tailored to circumstances.

De Schutter suggests we should harness our massive poverty relief Extended Public Works Programme (EPWP). If the food security projects within the EPWP were prioritised, skills could be shared through peer networking. There are many willing and successful civil society food security programmes, which have evolved around the country that can be used as models. 

Organisations like Abalemi Bezekaya, Food and Trees for Africa, Biowatch, Seed, The Food Gardens Foundation, Slow Food, as well as some municipalities, notably that of eThekweni (Durban), have started to map out how to beat poverty and work toward food security. This has been achieved without significant state assistance. By expanding these networks and programmes through co-operative governance structures we could collectively boost food production and security. The point is: government cannot do this on its own. Neither can civil society. The effort must be collective.

De Schutter also insists we must focus our efforts on the pursuit of sustainable farming practices, or Agro-ecological farming as it has become known. These integrated farming methods include water saving, soil enrichment, agro-forestry, urban fruit tree planting and erosion control; each aspect compounds the benefits of the other. Agro-ecology is a winner because external costs and environmental impacts are minimised while the health qualities and yields of food are maximised. 

Smallholder agro-ecological farming methods have repeatedly demonstrated far higher yields than industrial farming methods. A four-year study by the World Bank, UN Agencies and 400 agricultural scientists and economists has proven it a winner. Agro-ecology provides sustainable solutions to food security.

The fact that our agricultural policies have prioritised industrial farming practices highlights that system's failure. Food security, quality, health and the land tenure question have all stagnated. If we are to progress we must implement alternative models that have been proven to work. 

Existing commercial farmers still have a place. They can contribute. There have been notable successes amongst white farmers who have provided peer training and support to emerging farmers and workers co-ops. These sorts of programmes must be supported and expanded. The point is we need a different model to meet the particular challenge of national food security.

We must also be concerned about the 2% of our population who work and live on these farms. There are extensive skills amongst this sector. When they migrate to cities, a life for which they are eminently unqualified, these skills are lost. They are mainly non-unionised. Labour inspectors are often denied access to farm workers and their families. 

The irony is that while these people are responsible for producing most of our food, they are often themselves victims of food insecurity. Additionally, they are at the coalface of tensions around land reform. Careful use of sanctions and benefits, together with improved union access to workers, can bring recalcitrant landowners on board in the most constructive manner possible.

De Schutter's report suggests that if we really want to tackle the challenges of food security and meet our Millennium Development Goals, we must do more than spout rhetoric. It is fine to declare “War on Poverty!” but the failure to entrench our right to food into our legal framework and then provide the means to track and implement workable programmes is an open invitation to serious trouble. 

Our staggering levels of unemployment and inequality provide the ingredients for social unrest. As the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson said, “A hungry man is an angry man.” The obvious solution - to enable the marginalised and unemployed to, at the very least, feed themselves, their families and their communities - provides not only a dignified solution to so many problems but simultaneously opens up the door for participation in the informal and the real economies. 

De Schutter did not only visit us – he left us a gift. It is ours to use wisely.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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13 Aug

de Schutter Report

Thank you for GOOD article. Link to the de Schutter report?

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13 Aug

de Schutter Report

@ Ken - there is a link to the report in the article, but you can also find it via this link:

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Nicola Eley
16 Aug

The Right to Food in South Africa

Thank you for an excellent and concise summary of Olivier de Schutter's report. As a masters student studying Nutrition, Human Rights and Governance through Stellenbosch University, Makarere University (Uganda) and the University of Oslo (Norway) de Schutter's visit to SA has been a real inspiration to me and my fellow students. It seems that this issue of food (in)security is gaining momentum. Thanks for your contribution.

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