Shared visions for the future of food

In November, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a proposal by the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) to set the minimum wage in SA at R3,500 a month (or R20 a hour). The proposal has been criticised by parties on both sides of the political spectrum.

National Union of Metalworkers general secretary Irvin Jim called it “a legitimisation of slavery wages”, while commentators from the market sector argued that the proposal would lead to increased unemployment and widen the gap between the rich and poor.

While these debates continue to rage, new research on the rising cost of food gives the issue an alarmingly visceral dimension. It turns out that R3,500 a month is scarcely enough to pay for nutritious food for a small family in SA. What is more, almost half of the population (47%) earn even less than that.

The maths is not difficult: many households in SA do not earn sufficient income to feed themselves properly. For many, hunger and malnutrition are becoming the order of the day.

Exacerbated by drought, low economic growth and political instability, threats to the food system could become one of the biggest challenges our democracy has faced so far.

And yet defining the precise nature of the problem – much less finding a solution – has proved to be elusive. This is due in part to the extraordinary complexity of the network: from agricultural methods, environmental conditions and levels of pollution to government regulations, distribution channels and global trade agreements, each aspect of the food system is in itself a multifaceted area of investigation in which diverse stakeholders have an interest.

Fortunately, the Southern Africa Food Lab (SAFL) — a collaborative, multisector initiative created in 2009 to respond to systemic issues in the food system — has been laying the groundwork for the kind of innovative thinking that is required to meet the multiple challenges confronting food security. Using a process called “transformative scenario planning”, SAFL has created a series of four hypothetical scenarios that tell a story about the future of food in SA.

Each scenario is constructed around a particular aspect of the food system (food as natural resource, food production, food in the political economy and food as nutrition), and is the result of a workshopping process during which representatives from various sectors — including the food industry, government, civil society and academia – came together to debate the consequences of an impoverished food situation.

The four food scenarios do not presume to offer actual windows into the future. What they provide instead is a kind of middle ground between the diverse points of view that make up the complexity of the food system.

By creating a vision of what the future may look like – albeit an unpalatable future — the scenarios provide a point of departure for facilitating crucial discussions around the transformation of the food system into an ecologically sustainable process. The food scenarios work towards creating a “big picture” view of the food system in SA, thus providing a framework within which roleplayers can understand themselves as forming part of a larger narrative.

At the most basic level, the need for better communication simply has to do with co-ordination — different stakeholders need to be aware that their actions can have knock-on effects on other sectors within the system. This happens, for example, when energy and mining policies encourage coal mining in areas that are water-sensitive or agriculturally important.

As these trade-offs become more explicit, the consequences of the various options available for government policy also become clearer and more transparent.

By bringing key stakeholders from various sectors around the table and encouraging frank discussion, people are granted an opportunity to perceive each other’s motivations and thus to better understand the multiple forces at work in the system.

This enhanced form of understanding challenges people to move beyond their everyday approach to problem solving and to find novel ways of confronting the many pressing issues.

Few human problems are as deceptively simple as the problem of hunger. There is a pang in my stomach; if I eat some food, the pang will disappear, and all will be well. Unfortunately, the reality of the food system circumscribes a situation that is more complex.

When it comes to threatened food security, it is simply not feasible to identify a direct route to the solution. We will have to learn to take the longer path: to discuss things together, explore each other’s assumptions and think creatively. If we all work together in this way, we may eventually be able to sketch a scenario in which everyone has enough to eat.

This article was first published in the Business Day on 20 January 2017.