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Food Systems


One of the most important aspects of the restructuring of productive relations on the land is its impact on food systems. One of the consequences of land and agricultural policy since the 1970s is that South Africa currently has an enormously concentrated food system, with only a few corporations having accrued massive power not only in agriculture itself, but also upstream and downstream from it. While these arrangements are often justified in terms of their cost efficiency, they also involve significant costs. The domination of our food system by ‘big agriculture’ has undermined its ability to provide livelihoods, and has accelerated and deepened the processes that are driving poor people off the land.
Large scale industrial agriculture is ecologically unsustainable, reducing soil health and biodiversity, contributing to the pollution of our waterways, and making a significant contribution to climate change. And while this food system has managed to make some progress towards calorie sufficiency, it has promoted access to high energy foods with little nutritional value, contributing to a rapid rise in diet-related diseases in poor and vulnerable populations. While these dynamics are currently most concentrated in South Africa, indications are that supermarket expansion may be exporting obesity and diabetes to the rest of the continent.

PLAAS Food Systems Research

Our research on food systems is conducted in close collaboration with the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, which is co-hosted by and located at the University of the Western Cape.   One central theme of our research is understanding the role of smallholder agriculture in the food system, both as a source of livelihoods and as a component of sustainable local food geographies.  One of our key aims here is fostering connections between research on food and nutrition within poor and vulnerable populations, and research on agrarian restructuring and marginalised livelihoods.   Our research has also highlighted the important role played, not only by agriculture, but by marine resources and inland and coastal fisheries.

Featured Publications

May 13, 2019 in Food Systems Publication

Florian Kroll (2017). Foodways of the poor in South Africa: How value-chain consolidation, poverty & cultures of consumption feed each other (PLAAS Working Paper 36).

South African food systems are in a dynamic process of transition due to changes in food value chain regimes which have major impacts on the poor. However, these transitions are also shaped by demandside drivers emerging from the 'foodways of the poor' - the ways poor people access food, what kinds of food they purchase, how they are consumed, and…
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May 13, 2019 in Food Systems Publication

Anne Marie Thow et al (2019) Improving policy coherence for food security and nutrition in South Africa: a qualitative policy analysis. (Food Security 10:4)

Like most other low and middle-income countries, South Africa must address a rising burden of diet-related chronic disease in a situation of persistent food insecurity and undernutrition. Supply-side policy interventions are a critical component of action to address the double burden of malnutrition. However, the food supply is governed by a number of different policy sectors, and policy incoherence can…
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May 13, 2019 in Fisheries Publication, Food Systems Publication

Moenieba Isaacs (2016). The humble sardine (small pelagics): fish as food or fodder. (Agriculture and Food Security 5:27)

The group of small pelagic fish is the largest species group landed globally. A significant proportion of this nutrient-rich food is processed and lost to livestock feed, fish feed, fish oil, pet food and omega-rich vitamins. The nutritional importance of small pelagics as an easily digestible protein source, rich in essential lipids with fatty acids (EPA/DHA), essential amino acids, minerals…
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April 26, 2019 in Food Systems Publication

Ben Cousins, Amelia Genis and Jeanette Clarke: The Potential of Agriculture and Land Reform to Create Jobs (Policy Brief 51)

In this latest policy brief, commissioned by the Centre of Excellence on Food Security, PLAAS researchers explore a neglected aspect of food system arrangements: the ability of commercial agriculture to create jobs. Read the policy brief here.
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Current Projects

  • Agribusiness in Africa and the Right to Food: Funded by the  Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa,  this project seeks to support the help integration of the right to food within broader policy frameworks on growth and development in Southern Africa and embed an understanding of food system change within policy thinking that is key to achieving this goal.   Partners include the Zambian Land Alliance in Zambia,  Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (CEPA) and the Civil Society Agriculture Network (CISANET) in Malawi, and  the Observatório do Meio Rural (OMR) in Mozambique. The project is being led by Refiloe Joala.
  • Researching the Obesogenic Food Environment: This project, funded by the IDRC in Canada, explores the factors leading to the consumption of ultra-processed and obesogenic food products in the urban environments of poor people in South Africa and Ghana.  The project is led by Prof David Sanders of the School of Public Health (SOPH) at UWC. The project is hosted by the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, in partnership with  Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Ghana and the Menzies Centre for Health Policy, at the University of Sydney.   For more information, see the project page at the IDRC and this video summary.


Prof Andries du Toit

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Prof Mafa Hara

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moenieba isaacs

Prof Moenieba Isaacs

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Florian Kroll

refiloe joala plaas researcher

Refiloe M Joala

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