CoE Articles

Change is necessary for South Africa’s food system

Published October 15, 2020, by Mologadi Makwela

The maxim that the only constant in life is change, an expression whose origins is credited to Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, neatly sums up the evolution of food systems.

That was one of the messages to come out of the #FoodTalks webinar, the first of a series of virtual dialogues launched this week by the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS) ahead of World Food Day on Friday, 16 October. Under discussion will be not just the past and present of South Africa’s food system, but also an envisioned future in which South Africa’s widespread food security will be addressed.

Kicking off the conversation, Dr Xander Antonites of the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pretoria (UP) urged caution at the first event, held on 13 October. Titled ‘Exploring Endogenous Paths to a Resilient Food System in South Africa’, the session was moderated by archaeologist Ms Kefilwe Rammutla.

First, Antonites offered a brief introduction to the mammoth task facing archaeologists as they try to patch together, from the scraps of material remains that they can dig up, a picture of the evolution of food systems – from hunter-gathering to the first agricultural practices – in the country.

That, he explained, can best be illustrated by the medieval Kingdom of Mapungubwe, which extended from Botswana and Zimbabwe into South Africa. There, evidence shows, increasingly complex agricultural production and technologies triggered increased social complexity.

Antonites warned against the understandable impulses to romanticise the past, or to imagine that it can be captured into a single moment in time. “We often think of the past, of tradition and the way of doing things, as being fixed in the past,” he said. “The archaeological record shows us that that is clearly not the case.”

As if to echo those words, Prof Naushad Emmambux of the Department of Consumer and Food Sciences at UP, and the research leader for food processing within the CoE-FS, explained the work that he and others are doing in what could be the next step in the evolution of the food system. These are the development of foods that are defined as ‘SMART’; short for Safe, Marketable, Affordable, Ready-to-Eat and Tasty.

Such SMART foods, Emmambux explained, form part of efforts to combat food insecurity and stunting among children. In addition, these foods could serve as a substitute for the wave of convenient, and calorie-dense ‘western’ fast foods that many are falling back on. Changes in eating habits and foods, a product of growing urbanisation, has led to a concerning rise in diet-related non-communicable diseases, Emmambux noted.

The aim is to produce SMART foods that incorporate indigenous food crops, which are slowly falling out of fashion. These crops include sorghum, maize, teff, samp and bean (which, as is, take forever to prepare), cowpea, Bambara groundnuts, and orange-fleshed sweet potato.

The idea is to convert these into a basket of foods that, for instance, require less cooking time, are low in GI (thus no spikes in blood sugar); are high in dietary fibre and gluten-free; are bursting with nutrients, proteins and bioactive compounds; and foods that are less likely to go to waste.

One ambitious goal, Emmambux added, is to decentralise the production of SMART foods. “When we look at the processing technology that we are working on, we want to make sure that it can be adapted at farm level,” he said. “So that it can go into the rural area, and be of benefit to the farmers that are producing these crops or these gains.”

This would mean that such foods are available for consumption in rural areas, where access to food is even more problematic than in urban areas.

Two further dialogues will be hosted on World Food Day on 16 October. See details here and here. 

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