CoE Articles

2022 CoE-FS research in review: National food governance – Towards national knowledge brokerage

Published December 31, 2022, by Carla Bernardo

The “National food governance – Towards national knowledge brokerage” project involves Dr Camilla Adele (UP), Florian Kroll (UWC), Professor Lise Korsten (UP), Dr Marc Wegerif (UP), Professor Julian May (UWC) and Professor Bruno Losch (UWC/CIRAD).

Through developing knowledge brokerage platforms, the project aims to increase the visibility and societal impact of CoE-FS’s research as well as produce new socially robust knowledge on how to better govern South Africa’s food system.

The main activities of this project in 2022 were to:

  • Engage with national policy through dialogue, policy analysis, and systematic review
  • Engage with the food and nutrition implications of ‘hot topics’ that arise, such as land reform, food safety governance, and COVID-19 mitigation strategies
  • Engage with international experiences of policies for food and nutrition security that explores national experiences of food policy dialogues.

With initial support from WCG and SALGA, food policy debates have already been developed at the local level with the Witzenberg Municipality and the City of Cape Town (CoCT). These debates have also been initiated in Gauteng and with the City of Johannesburg (CoJ).

Due to the importance of food system governance and the role of power relations in explaining the characteristics of the South African food system, and acknowledging the wealth of existing research on the topic, the programme decided to engage in a systematic literature review. Investigating the South African food insecurity paradox (persisting insecurity in spite of a wealth of food policies, research programmes, and developed social welfare instruments), the review of 1994 to 2020 publications highlights the central role of the national government in food system governance and the limited contribution of other actors characterised by major asymmetries. The diagnosis of the main food system governance issues exists (priority to production and food supply, policy fragmentation, weak coordination, partial and inadequate stakeholder engagement), as well as many solutions to the governance challenges (the need for a legislative framework, adequate coordination mechanisms, better stakeholder engagement through a larger role to be given to local governments).

The current status quo leads to questions about the willingness of the state for change and its possible abdication in governing the food system, rooted in the characteristics of the post-apartheid political economy (deregulation, oligopolisation and financialisation). The rising power of the private actors leads to a private food system governance (impacting prices and pricing, food standards, food environment, and the framing of problems and design of solutions). It calls for new knowledge and a better-informed public debate for improved food democracy, and an effective institutionalisation of dialogue between stakeholders based on inclusiveness, transparency and mutual accountability.

Specific research on food system governance in the cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg based on engagement with officials at the provincial and metropolitan levels has permitted deeper insights into processes of statecraft and the underlying rationalities of government. This has revealed that the intersecting logics of New Public Management and neo-patrimonialism create a risk-averse organisational culture (giving priority to food relief and urban agriculture support based on tools, seed and fertiliser) which hampers the development of a food system governance agenda which could promote the transition to nourishing, equitable, sustainable and resilient urban food systems. In Cape Town, the convergence of several crises (water, COVID-19), a change in political leadership, and the establishment of a novel resilience unit have led to collaborative responses incorporating officials within the CoCT and WCG alongside a researcher network, the inclusion of food systems within the CoCT’s Resilience Strategy, and the subsequent establishment of a food systems programme. By contrast, food system governance in the CoJ has remained conservative and proposals for more systemic governance have fallen on barren ground — likely as a result of neo-patrimonial politics, capacity constraints, and conceptual limitations on framing food systems as objects of governance.

These findings suggest that, despite mentalities averse to the political and institutional risks of challenging incumbent power within the food system, networks of officials and academics can develop novel governance narratives to formulate policy proposals ready to take advantage of policy windows presented by systemic crises. They show the importance of developing an enabling environment, supportive political leadership, and the establishment of transversal mandates such as the resilience unit.

Research under this project will continue in 2023.

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