Research Reports

Phase 1 – The state of the debate on agroecology in South Africa: A scan of actors, discourses and policies – Final report

Published 30 July 2021, by Stephen Greenberg and Scott Drimie

Executive summary 

This study was conducted under the auspices of the Transitions to Agroecological Food Systems project. Its main objective is to provide policymakers and stakeholders with convincing arguments about the importance and adapted ways of promoting agroecological transitions in order to address current and coming sustainability challenges. 

Specific initiatives and current policies related to agroecological transitions at the national level are identified with different stakeholders. Several questions are addressed such as: what are the visions and narratives of agroecological transitions and related food systems? How sustainability challenges and agroecological transitions are framed. What are the social forces promoting and opposing agroecological transitions? What kind of public action supporting agroecological transitions has already been implemented? 

Given the reality of agricultural practice in South Africa, the wide range of existing definitions of agroecology can be considered as aspirational. As such, the accent is placed on diverse ecological production techniques and their integration at farm and landscape levels. We propose these be considered as a continuum of practices, with “entry-level” requirements for stepping onto the path of agroecology as no use of genetically modified (GM) seeds, synthetic fertilisers or pesticides that are toxic to humans, animals and the soil. The list of practices offers a range of opportunities for building change practically from the “grassroots” level. Recognising agroecology as a movement, we also propose the integration of participatory methods of dialogue, research, experimentation and learning as defining features of agroecological practice. 

In terms of recent historical context, a number of initiatives on agroecology have unfolded, underpinned by a base of diverse practitioners who are connected in networks of variable coherence and scale. These networks have come closer to each other in response to deepening social and ecological crises, especially after the emergence of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. It is also held that government framing in the past 5 years is not overtly hostile to the idea of agroecology and many elements are included in policies and plans. There are, however, serious questions about government commitment to realise these elements in practice. 

Visions and discourses around agroecology can be categorised along a continuum of views, from neoliberal and reformist approaches within the corporate food regime, to progressive and food sovereignty approaches in food movements. In mainstream and specialist media, agroecology is still hardly known. Organics tends to be the most well-known term. On the one hand, mainstream views are mixed. By and large, agroecology or organic production is considered irrelevant or a side issue, with some acknowledgement of organic production for premium niche markets. Agroecology tends to be conflated with subsistence or welfare production. On the other hand, within the food movement, agroecology is gaining ground as a radical alternative to large-scale corporate-industrial agriculture, with deep ecological, social and health benefits. 

Four major actor clusters were identified: the private sector; research, education and training; state entities; and civil society organisations. The private sector is mainly rooted in the dominant conventional and Green Revolution agricultural paradigm, underpinned by what 10 

could be termed the agrochemical complex. The private sector has a strong influence on the government, in particular in those agencies and departments holding financial resources. There are a few private sector philanthropies supporting agroecological transitions and food sovereignty, and there are a few tentative moves towards organic production amongst producers and retailers although still heavily within the dominant corporate model. 

Research and training tend to follow the dominant ideological orientation, with very few openings even simply for agroecological experimentation. State entities and policies are contradictory, with a policy hierarchy dominated by the economic and financial departments. State entities are a mirror of the wider society with a dominant combination of neoliberalism and reformism, but also a few opportunities for support for agroecological practices. Civil society organisations have developed a fairly coherent narrative and also engaged in practices ranging from movement towards more ecological practices by large commercial grain farmers through to NGO-supported backyard garden initiatives in townships and informal settlements. There is significant knowledge and development of good practices but these are still quite fragmented and initiatives tend to operate in isolation from one another. 

Policies and plans were categorised into the overall national planning framework, policies aligned with neoliberalism that in practice hinder agroecological transitions, and policies that have elements that open the way for agroecological transitions even if unevenly and sometimes in contradiction with other policy elements. The overall framework is contradictory, reflecting the ongoing contestations at the heart of South African society. For food and agriculture, the dominant voice is of large-scale commercial agriculture and big business in the discourse of global competitiveness, export orientation, commercial value chains and finance. However, within the policy mix there are also relatively consistent voices on environment and climate, and also a (more muted and fragmented) voice in favour of ecologically sound, mass-based and socially just transformation. These voices contest and contradict each other. 

Agricultural policies tend towards a Green Revolution and commercial value chain approach to smallholder farmer support. The trade regime, seed and agrochemical laws pose large obstacles in the way of agroecological transition. On the other hand, there are numerous policies, plans and programmes that have elements that can be consolidated to underpin an agroecology strategy for South Africa. There is significant convergence in agricultural and environmental policies especially around climate change, biodiversity and natural resource management that orient towards more ecologically sustainable production practices. Food and nutrition security plans offer pathways to agroecological transitions in theory. Two overarching draft policies – the Organic Policy and the Agroecology Strategy – are currently dormant but could be revived in a push for an overall policy or strategy. 

A number of strategic opportunities for work on agroecological transitions are identified. These include drawing on the People’s Food Sovereignty Act in reviving efforts to develop a national agroecology policy or strategy. This will require civil society organisations to unite and present a common front, and to identify the appropriate entry points in government to restart these discussions. Another related approach is to adopt “applied policy” where a specific set of sites is identified for work on transitions together with local actors, and then the policy obstacles or opportunities identified and approaches developed arising from those specific localities and experiences.

A few relevant initiatives are identified at the local level as possible place-based initiatives, which could help to provide more evidence on South African experiences in agroecology and contribute to the implementation of the next steps of the project. It seeks to map local actors and dynamics, convene multi-actor dialogues to identify opportunities for building agroecological practice and local food systems agency, prioritise, and develop actions to realise these opportunities in practice.

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