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The idea of a Liberation Agriculture and the rise of a new food system

From the 1960s and onwards we witnessed the rise of the liberation theology movement. This movement emphasized the need for social justice and a critical and affirmative stance towards oppression and marginalization. The church during this time was enamoured by celebrity preachers and aligned to an oppressive status quo. Jesus, however, is here for the oppressed and marginalised, and the church is not intended to serve material interests, but human interests in spirituality and emancipation. Theologians changed the narrative to emphasise social justice and equality and deliver a message of hope for those marginalised an oppressed: Come to the church for relief and salvation from an oppressive poverty!

We can counter oppression and marginalization with a spiritualism, but we also, and perhaps most importantly, have to work towards improving the material reality of our people. This movement emphasized the importance of real changes to people’s lives, and this is the inspiration that we need! Can we use this inspiration to create the imagery of a liberation agriculture?

Agriculture is under question these days. New farmers should navigate food, food production and the sale of food for emancipatory opportunities. Agriculture is a major contributor to climate change. The way we practice and organise agriculture is in question. We breed our foods towards very narrow genetic profiles, and this endangers biodiversity and makes it hard for farmers to gain access to seeds. Our crops are weak and cannot resist pests. We also produce our foods with high technology which has eliminated jobs in the sector, although it is still the largest employer in the country. The food system benefits large agribusiness corporations, who are locked-in a high-volume production system, and they serve the supermarkets of this world. Jesus would say: “Forgive them, as they do not know what they are doing”…

Supermarkets and high-volume producers are bound by the system to produce foods in large quantities, and it is this sheer volume of food that creates large producers, processors and retailers as winners in the food system. Large volumes of food enable processors to sell over-refined foods that are bad for our health. The volumes enable large players to trade by buying large volumes and they can then set prices. This creates our food systems as distant, opaque systems hidden in the warehouses and boardrooms of large companies that own “brands”. We have also compartmentalised land, and it is being traded and owned by few. We have witnessed the proliferation of agribusiness, and there are fewer farmers now who produce our food as in the past. Production is organised according to economies of scale, further narrowing access to the productive potential of our land.

Many of these challenges in agriculture are linked to each other and it is really hard to separate them. Hence, we stand in front of two paths for agricultural reform, and we need to engage with both, as both hold potential for change and the emancipation of our people. First of all, we need to develop the technologies and techniques to farm and produce enough food without harmful effects, and there are real indications that a biologically based regenerative agriculture will be able to produce enough food, and ensure ecological integrity, which is important for future generations. Regenerative agriculture can soften the blows when fertiliser supplies are affected by wars and crises, as biological systems can substitute for chemical inputs. We can thus decentralise our supply chains for inputs and allow newer technologies to secure the supply of nutrients for large scale farming. Advances in blending biological and conventional systems enable us to go forward without feeling the pinch of global disruptions. Fertilisers are particularly susceptible to disruptions in global supply chains, and we need to re-focus our gaze to seeing how a national agriculture can serve the interests of ourselves whilst being competitive in world markets.

We also need to reform agriculture by allowing new, emergent and small farmers access to the food system. To do so, we need to first of all enable local and smaller producers challenge the inefficiencies of global supply chains. The way they construct their enterprises is key here, and there is a universe of business strategies that can be developed to enable smaller producers and retailers to compete with large supermarkets, who hold their own inefficiencies. These are opportunities for new entrepreneurs in the food system.

This article sets out one possible path we can take to establish a local metropolitan agriculture that draws on and build local capacity in producing, trading and wasting food. This is a path that addresses the new reality of urbanisation. Most of our people have moved to cities and even secondary towns and villages exhibit this new urban reality. Our people live in underserved communities, and often in informal settlements where ownership of land and access to opportunities are available should we engage with them in the right way. This is part of a conversation and debate that we need to have on the future of our food systems. Would it be possible to satisfy a large fraction of food demand by the proliferation of urban agricultural enterprises? How we respond to this challenge is key, and we need to tinker and adapt our retail and production models for this to become a reality. This article sets out one path of transformation and development of our food system, and it is focussed on the lives urban reality in underserved communities.

Foods are usually sourced by consumers from globally connected malls and supermarkets and reflect prices of the global system. However, in these underserved communities, people are struggling to make ends meet and we see a proliferation of urban agriculture, small retail and a significant quantity of food waste being discarded by households. Can we converge and unify these disparate and unconnected sectors in building a new food system? There are real opportunities here for urban food entrepreneurs, and they would be able to build new institutional realities for food production, trade and waste, and this is the opportunity in front of us. Some succeed in farming in the peri-urban areas and it is these farmers and their nearby retailers – the spaza shops, that sit at the heart of a new urban food reality. Would it be possible to build these enterprises to become competitive and productive sources of food?

Key challenges in the food system

In order to shift agriculture, and to empower new and emergent actors in the food system, we need to first of all expose the key challenges inherent to the current food system. We are oppressed by food. Food sustains us and keeps us alive, but it is the workings of the food system, when and after this food is produced, that challenges emerge. We are oppressed by our own hunger when we do not have enough to eat. Hence, we need to understand how much food is produced and why people still suffer hunger. This article will discuss these, and then immediately offer alternatives that have great and true emancipatory potential.

We are also oppressed by the ways we produce food. A capital intensive, chemically-dependent and mechanised food production system delivers a lot of food, but the impact of large volumes of food on the ecology, on the retail and processing system, and on the nature of the firms in the food system leave a lot to be desired. Here we have seen the concentration of producers and processors, and also retailers, in the sector. According to the Competition Commission of South Africa, up to 80 % of the revenue in the South African food system accrues to only 10% of our agribusiness corporations. Processed foods are aggressively marketed and reified by our diets, and here the greatest profits are realised, but it accrues to corporations and supermarkets, and have effects on the national economy and on our health. What opportunities are there for emancipation here?

We also trade food in very clear and pre-determined supply and value chains. These benefit supermarkets, as they can handle large volumes and they make most profit from highly processed foods, extending the elasticity of prices for foods. These are often unhealthy alternatives to raw foods, and supermarkets take the lion’s share of the benefit from the trade in food. What opportunities are there for emergent traders to benefit?

We also distribute food in ways that are excessive and harmful. Our foods travel upwards of 1000 km to arrive on our plates. The food miles our foods travel contribute to pollution and carbon emissions. Can we change this and benefit more people as we eliminate the food miles and pollution?

We are also oppressed by the need to cook our foods. Many of us live without kitchens, particularly those in the inner city and those in informal housing. How can we liberate our cuisines and the indigenous foods we have always consumed, and elevate these to a high standard of eating?

These are tough challenges to overcome. To do so we have to be strong, and receive inspiration from those who have contemplated our liberation from the oppressions of history, which includes the oppressions we experience in the food system. The leading lights in this tradition, Steve Biko, Paolo Freire and Franz Fanon, to name only a few, have emphasized overcoming of our place in history. There are countless women farmers and entrepreneurs, who may not have been as eloquent as these authors, who nevertheless have pioneered ways to produce food for themselves, their families and communities. If you work outside the system, you have to draw on the opportunities in the local system to harvest wastes and use alternative means and technologies to market your food. With the rise of ICT and social media, this is becoming a real possibility. The opportunities evident coalesce into a coherent programme for local food enterprise development, and this is important. This article wants to elevate these activities and show that these are in fact the beginnings of a new approach and opportunity to build healthy and sustainable food systems. We need to understand the sources of oppression and our place in history to do so, and then overcome them. This is possible, and below I emphasise what we can do to overcome the oppression of food as we experience them at this particular point in history.

We have in front of us an unprecedented opportunity. We are able to reconfigure the food system to become a regenerative system that builds on the inherent productivity of nature, synch this with the life of the community, and in this move, safeguard and conserve our legacy of biodiversity, build a new way of producing and trading food, and inspire us to develop cuisines that make the best of modern and indigenous cooking. Doing so will also create opportunities for self-emancipation for entrepreneurs, as they emancipate our communities with a competitive offering.

A new urban agenda for food production and trade

There is enough food to feed everyone. We give most of our food to animals to produce a meat-heavy diet, and we lose resources in doing so. We can eliminate hunger if we shift some of the food we give to animals toward humans. We are flooded with pronouncements on the dangers of food security and hunger, whilst the solution is patently obvious in front of our eyes. Why is this discourse of food insecurity promoted to heavily? This is done to safeguard the role of large volume producers in the economy.

We are also told that we will not produce enough food if we do not intensify our technological system of food production. Once again, there is enough food. So, we do not need to intensify our agricultural production systems, but rather transform them so the benefits of food production, trade and waste spreads more widely. Technology can enable conventional agriculture to produce food with less harmful effects, but the cost of such intensive production also favours those well-endowed. These systems are open to use by anyone, and real opportunities lie in hydroponic and aquaponic production. However, can we smooth over the hurdle of access so many can gain access to these technologies?

Only if farmers pioneer new systems that do so, will this become a reality. Individual entrepreneurs need to test and experiment with the market to humanise these technologies and make them accessible. Hydroponics can be implemented with a lot of cash, or you could gather river sand and buckets and start producing in this way. What this means is that individuals need to struggle with and master these systems. It is in their struggle that the solution will come to light! I know of many who have adapted hydroponic systems to become low-cost alternatives to the store-bought expensive systems. It is in safeguarding this experimentation that we can move forward…

A move to biological systems will allow farmers to create their own inputs and this will change the logic of profitability in the food system. Animals and their waste need to be integrated in local production systems. The Su-Johnson bioreactor offers alternatives, as does the south Korean JADAM agriculture movement. The adoption of such biological techniques will have benefit to emergent and small farmers, as their profitability will increase. It is not necessary to produce large volumes, but rather higher quality foods. Small farmers need to be enabled to sell better, and delivery to the current system will not benefit them.

The current agricultural marketing system depends on the aggregation of singular commodities, and the levy paid by producers aims at the global marketing of agricultural produce, mainly to ensure first world supplies. This has built a global marketing system that is of low benefit for local and smaller producers. To overcome this, enterprises need to be built that will produce and trade food in local areas, and this system may be able to outperform the global system, should farmers be able to transform the wastes from households to farming inputs and build retail opportunities through engagement with the producers of these wastes. Researchers have pointed out urban areas can be self-sufficient in fruits and vegetables provided 30% of urban land is available for agriculture, and this can bring about a new grand opportunity for urban agriculture. This means we need to focus on the enterprise development of such small farmers, as they can combine the opportunities and technologies, a.o. in a way that is both profitable and effective. They can sell better by eliminating the middlemen in the food supply chain, and this is possible with knowledge of biological production, and community engagement, urban waste planning, and new retail models for local production.

Marketing and sales

Higher quality foods can be marketed and distributed in new ways. Emergent farmers can link closely with their customers and using social media tools, and can create new ways of educating, distributing, input harvesting (we can harvest food and other wastes from households and re-purpose them in the production system) and selling locally produced and sourced food. Food waste makes a high nitrogen content compost, and this is invaluable for local production of “kitchen vegetables”. Technologies, from compositing bins to biodigesters are available to process this wate.

It is not necessary to produce more food, but it is necessary for emergent and small farmers to sell their food better, and not sell to middlemen in the long value chains that feed supermarkets. By building a new distribution, marketing and waste system between farmers and customers we can eliminate the middleman and specifically the centralized distribution systems that our supermarkets depend upon. This will immediately make available much more benefit to emergent producers and they will be able to command their own value chains, should they have a hand in the final retail sale of the produce. This is the basis of a competitive price they can offer to customers.

Farmers should de-link from the current marketing system, develop their own “spaza” shops, with social media loyalty, education and waste harvesting programmes, and these are appropriate for our new urban reality. This will enable food production units in urban areas and small farms to become profitable, and this will create space for the development of new markets, particularly for fresh and indigenous foods. Now we can also improve our indigenous cuisines as these will be available, also in urban areas.

The harvesting of wastes can also be integrated with the recycling economy, and urban farmers can set up ancillary enterprises and build their loyalty systems by developing food for waste programmes. This will benefit both consumers, farmers who sell this on to reclaimers or buy-back centres, and improve our living conditions in underserviced urban areas. If we are serious about this, we could support these reclaimers by diverting budgeted funds for waste management to them, and in this way improve the urban waste and food systems.

Urban farmers, and rural farmers close to urban settlements, have a great opportunity in front of them. They need to be assisted in developing urban-based food enterprise and they need to use best-practice enterprise development strategies to build these enterprises. Key insights that can build upon what we have said before include:

Selling at a competitive price point. Urban farmers can make available foods at lower cost than supermarkets. This needs to be advertised to the immediate community and I recommend selling at 5% lower price than the nearest supermarket. This will enable an urban farmer to capture the market, and this can be integrated with selling on foods sourced also from the formal sector and fresh produce markets as is the case at present. This enables the building of a robust local food enterprise with multiple revenue streams that includes waste processing.

Waste and recycling and exchange programmes

The waste harvesting system will source from urban waste streams. Food waste can be made into good fertilizer, and this is the basis of future production. The integration of recycling will benefit the urban landscape significantly and maximise the value this can have for the local community. Recyclables can be exchanged for 2nd grade foods, and this will lead to a food for waste system that will enable the farmer to harvest recyclables at low to no costs. These can be sold onwards to reclaimers, and this will immediately benefit the community and the reclaimer. This is the basis of a new waste harvesting system in urban areas.

Social media can be used to educate communities on good food (which can be produced freshly at local level, particularly for “kitchen vegetables”). This can become a marketing system, and a loyalty programme. Communities will see how the waste they deliver to urban farmers creates the food they eat. Food – and its price! – is thus co-created by consumers disposing of their wastes at neighbourhood farms. Farmers can lead the building of new communities that have their own interests at heart and can these systems will build communities of practice around urban farms, where people see how they can influence prices and quality of produce. This will create a marketing system that will crowd-in customers and find synergies with them, and this can lead to lower prices for customers and higher benefit for the farmer.

The long-term impacts of upgrading the environment, building enterprises and transforming waste, will have clear health and social effects. If communities can buy food at competitive prices from local farmers their spending will drive the processing of wastes into soil fertility, which will lead to higher production of lower priced foods. Farmers as entrepreneurs will lead the consumption of good food and this will have long term health effects and build social cohesion, especially if they develop a loyalty, community education and a food for waste programme.


There are ways to subvert the oppression of the current food system. To realise the emancipatory potential of a local food system, farmers and food traders need to break out of the current structures and build new ones. These are possible and do not need any special skills or technologies. The path in front of us is open, and we need to seize these opportunities as committed actors who aim to transform our systems.

The above can be combined into a new urban agricultural enterprise. Such an enterprise will produce using biological and also other means, and gain value by metabolising biological wates from the community. Consumers will see their own wates lead to lower prices, and their participation in these waste programmes co-creates the food they will consume. Selling can be dignified, and food can be sold and weighed as it is done in supermarkets and branded as “local” to reinforce the participation of consumers in the production process. Wastes can be seamlessly harvested from consumers in exchange for 2nd grade food. This will elevate 1st grade food and it will lead to better value, and similar revenue for farmers had this not been done. Consumers will have better choices from local farmers, who are prevalent in all South African townships. Their production systems will benefit from metabolising food waste and ensure fertility for the next harvest. Social media will combine all this into a whole, and marketing, education, and organising of the community is possible through this. Now the urban agricultural enterprise can expand its product offerings. It will be well placed to also source food from the fresh produce markets, and these bulk foods can be traded alongside locally produced foods, giving local foods a high profit margin. Bulk food can be sold as “bulk” with very low mark-ups and in this way the farmer can capture even more of the local market. Bulk will thus be sold alongside local high quality fresh produce, differentiating products and bringing high value to the consumer.

These opportunities are only evident if we adopt a critical view of the food system and enhance the fluidity of enterprise models and value chain characteristics. These can all be changed and have to be changed for emergent and invisible food producers and retailers to emerge from the shadows and assert their rights and abilities to produce and trade food in new ways. The path to success is as yet uncharted, but we need to engage with these opportunities as we all struggle to find better ways to feed ourselves.

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