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Navigating the climate change – food system crisis for under-resourced communities

World Food Day is celebrated annually on the 16th of October, to raise awareness of the inequalities when it comes to food security. Food security is exacerbated by climate change, especially in under-resourced communities in Africa, where a number of socioeconomic factors are concerned. 

Food security is the availability, accessibility, and affordability of nutritious food. It is a fundamental human right, and yet, climate change threatens to undermine it, especially in developing countries such as South Africa, where climate-induced drought and rising food prices are jeopardising access to food. 

The incorporation of sustainable agricultural practices merged with climate education that relies on both contemporary and indigenous knowledge systems is key to addressing climate change and the inequalities entrenched in the global food system as it currently is. 

The Big Problem: Climate Change and Food

Climate change is a global crisis that demands urgent attention. The increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is leading to a shift in average global temperatures. This shift is causing extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, and heatwaves, which directly impact agricultural production. 

Climate change is a threat multiplier which means that it exacerbates socioeconomic challenges that already exist. Thus, issues such as food and water insecurity, poverty and world hunger are amplified. Accelerated climate change is more than just an environmental issue; it is also a threat to global food security. Changes in rainfall patterns and temperature fluctuations affect many factors involved in crop growth and yield such as soil health, pest control, and sowing and harvesting cycles. This makes it increasingly difficult for farmers to predict weather patterns and produce enough food to meet the growing demand. This, coupled with rising food prices across the world are some of the greatest threats to food security. 

As a result, communities in South Africa are already facing increased challenges in accessing nutritious food, combating hunger and lifting large portions of the population out of poverty. For instance, approximately 55.5% (30.3 million) people live in poverty at the upper poverty line, and 20.7% of households engage in subsistence farming to feed their families. In 2021, about 2.1 million people (over 11%) of South African households reported experiencing hunger, despite the country’s substantial agricultural production. 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), world hunger has increased from150 million people since 2019 (pre-COVID-19 pandemic) to affecting 828 million people in 2021. Asia (with 425 million people affected) and Africa (with 278 million people affected) were the worst affected continents in 2022. 

Communities in Danger: The Impact on Food Security

Certain communities are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on food security. In South Africa, subsistence farmers who rely on rain-fed agriculture for household food security are particularly at risk and they often lack the resources and infrastructure to deal with difficult conditions, leaving them susceptible to crop failures and food shortages. Additionally, marginalised and low-income communities face limited access to nutritious food due to rising food prices and disrupted supply chains caused by climate-related events.

For example, in 2022, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) was affected by severe flooding, which resulted in thousands of households being destroyed, reduced local food security and agricultural production in the region, and affected the export of produce and the import of agricultural-related goods. Approximately 1 386 941 hectares of cropland were impacted, while 51 601 hectares were completely destroyed by the floods. 

Sustainable Farming: A Path to Food Security

Commercial agriculture which makes use of monoculture methods requiring large-scale soil tilling, insatiable water use and the application of harmful pesticides and fertilisers contribute to the problem. Around 20 to 25% of global annual emissions originate from agriculture, forestry and land-use change alone – not including food transport and energy-intensive production processes. 

According to the latest report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to have any chance of limiting the global temperature rise to around 1.5 degrees and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, global anthropogenic emissions must be reduced by nearly half by the end of this decade. 

To address global emissions in the context of agricultural production, sustainable farming practices are essential. Sustainable farming focuses on maximising agricultural productivity while minimising environmental impact. This means that there needs to be a shift away from not only large-scale commercial agriculture, but also so called climate-smart agriculture, as many of these practices still use pesticides and fertilisers which contribute to climate change and environmental degradation. Methods such as conservation farming, agroforestry and agroecology, and permaculture, build resilient food systems that are less vulnerable to climate change at both commercial and subsistence levels. These practices recognise the value of indigenous knowledge systems and take a climate-centred approach to agriculture, thus promoting soil health, water conservation, and biodiversity, contributing to long-term food security.

Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA) offers a number of solutions to improve food security while protecting the environment in a way that mitigates climate change and supports those who are most vulnerable. For example, Permaculture Starter Packs (PSPs) have been distributed to various areas across the country. They include tailored and phased training and mentoring for these communities, and are one of the ways in which people can be encouraged and assisted to grow their own food in sustainable ways. These permaculture and biointensive approaches to agriculture are customised locally to suit the South African landscape. FTFA also supports food security projects, around the country and neighbouring countries, such as the Phawu Agripak Cooperative. This group of small-scale agriculturists recognise the importance of producing self-sustainable food systems while building climate awareness and taking climate action through greening and responsible water resource management. The cooperative’s strategic use of rainwater harvesting, grey water use and the application of swales for instance has led to their 1.3 hectares of land being exceptionally well cultivated over the years. 

Strengthening Food Sovereignty

Food sovereignty is the right of communities to control their own food systems. It emphasises local food production, distribution, and consumption, promoting self-sufficiency and resilience. Climate change poses a threat to food sovereignty by disrupting traditional farming practices and increasing reliance on external food sources. However, achieving food sovereignty also forms part of the solution to climate change because, at its core, it promotes principles that enable society to work with nature, rather than against it. By supporting small-scale agroecological farmers, promoting local food markets, and investing in community-led initiatives, food sovereignty can be strengthened and access to healthy and culturally appropriate food ensured, while also building the adaptive capacity of African communities. 

A programme of FTFA, the African Climate Reality Project (ACRP) recently held a series of workshops aimed at addressing issues impacted by climate change, and providing action based solutions including that of food sovereignty. ACRP was joined by two experts – Vanessa Black from BioWatch and Rogan Field from FTFA, who spoke on the intricacies of food sovereignty, global food systems impacting on climate change, and achieving food security through food gardens. Forty participants from countries including Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Kenya joined the conversation. 

Addressing Food Prices and Inequality

Rising food prices due to crop loss and supply chain disruptions disproportionately affect low-income communities. A key example of this is reflected by results of the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group’s (EDJG) Household Affordability Index, which compares monthly fluctuations in the price of a household food basket. Released in September 2023, it tracked food price data from 47 supermarkets and 32 butcheries in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Pietermaritzburg, Mtubatuba and Springbok, and paints a bleak picture of the relentless increase in staple foods and nutritious vegetables. In August 2023, the average cost of a household food basket was R5,124.34, which reflected an increase of R348.75 (7.3%), from R4,775.59 in August 2022 and a R42.40 (0.8%) month-on-month rise from R5,081.94 in July 2023. 

The issue of inaccessibility and affordability reflect the interconnectedness of climate change, food security, and poverty and disproportionately affect vulnerable populations. Food sovereignty offers a path toward resilience and sustainability by placing control over food systems in the hands of local communities, empowering them to adapt to the effects of climate change while ensuring equitable access to nutritious and affordable food. Thus, when people are supported to grow their own food in ways that not only improve the overall health of the population, but also that of their immediate natural environment, these communities simultaneously combat food insecurity, hunger, malnutrition, environmental deprivation and poverty. 

Existing farming knowledge and honouring indigenous practices in communities is key and must be valued for their ability to address hunger and build resilience. Indigenous knowledge systems are invaluable in addressing climate change-related food insecurity as they offer time-tested, locally adapted strategies for sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship. Incorporating these indigenous practices into climate education fosters a deeper understanding of ecosystem dynamics, enabling communities to make informed decisions and adapt to changing environmental conditions. 

Civil society interventions play a crucial role in merging traditional wisdom with contemporary climate education and capacitating communities. The importance of food security programmes such as FTFA’s, and food sovereignty awareness campaigns such as ACRP’s cannot be undervalued in stimulating both social development and economic growth as communities are enabled to earn a living by harnessing their skills, thus reducing reliance on large-scale agriculture and expensive imports.  

Conclusion

Climate change poses a significant threat to global food security, with vulnerable communities bearing the brunt of its impact. To ensure a secure, affordable and resilient food system, we must prioritise sustainable farming practices, climate education, and the strengthening of food sovereignty. By supporting small-scale farmers, and addressing inequalities in access to food, we can build a future where everyone has access to nutritious and affordable food, even in the face of a changing climate.

About

Food and Trees for Africa (FTFA) along with the African Climate Reality Project (ACRP) programme promotes food security and food sovereignty in South Africa and across the African continent. Through various initiatives, education and awareness-raising campaigns, they seek to combat the complex challenges associated with climate change and hunger. 

For media enquiries, contact:

Nicole Ras
Food & Trees for Africa
Communications Manager
nicole@trees.org.za

Avantika Seeth
African Climate Reality Project
Communications Coordinator
avantika.seeth.za@climatereality.com 

Climate change, Climate education, climate resilient food systems, food gardens, food sovereignty, indigenous knowledge, sustainable agriculture, sustainable communities
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