South Africa used to be fully self-sufficient from a food perspective. We had some of the most productive farmers in the world and arguably still do. In the last 30 years, we have gone from being a net exporter of food by volume to now being a net importer in almost 60% of all food categories. We have scaled up our production of high-value export items like wine and scaled way back on the staples like grains and vegetables
Agriculture is labour intensive. Although it now only represents 2.5% of GDP, it is almost 6% of total employment. With a growing population and increasing food needs our agriculture should be growing. But, over time, our diet has changed. We no longer eat the variety of locally grown foods we used to. At the same time, our rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and obesity have increased massively. Eating more local food is a healthier food choice for our health and the economy. Maybe it is time we pay more attention to where our food is coming from and why?
5 Reasons Our Diet Is Hurting Our Agriculture
1. We are eating more processed foods
The number and amount of processed and convenience foods we now consume on average has increased in the last 3 decades. Processed foods require different ingredients to a simpler, more natural diet of whole foods. Large food manufacturing entities have to import many of the ingredients to manufacture processed foods. The more processed foods we eat the less of the staple homegrown foods we eat.
2. Processed foods require a larger processing industry
South Africa lacks the agro-processing industry needed to prepare many ingredients for use in processed foods. Processes like dehydration, freeze drying, grain puffing, powder making, moisture reducing or steam sterilization don't exist to a large extent in South Africa.
Our agricultural industry is mainly a fresh produce, meat and grain market (the original natural foods). With the demand and scale for processed food increasing, companies that manufacture processed foods are having to import the pre-processed ingredients they need. Read more about why imported foods may not be the best healthy food choice.
3. The origin of our products is hidden
Label laws require the origin of the products we buy to be shown on the label. But, origin simply refers to the final stage of processing. The final stage of processing is where the product is mixed or packed, not where it was grown. Processed food products with multiple ingredients, where it would not be possible to disclose the origins of individual ingredients, emphasize this issue.
4. We buy from big businesses
30 or 40 years ago you either grew your own veggies or bought from someone who did. You went to the market for your fruit and fresh produce and you went to the family-run butcher for your meat. This chain of people has got longer over time. Now our food comes from the big chain supermarket. The supermarket decides who they buy from and where the food comes from. We have outsourced our purchasing power to a few very large entities.
With a few large entities controlling the market, there are fewer customers for farmers to sell to. Large customers can make demands of farmers on cost, appearance, delivery timings and volumes. This often results in stronger chemicals used in the growing process, less diversifications of varieties and other issues created in an attempt to maximise yields. Fewer farmers are able to compete to sell their produce. This is a global problem, especially with your larger field crops like grains, legumes, potatoes, onions etc.
5. We saved then, to pay now
We have one of the most volatile currencies in the world. With so much movement in the exchange rate, big buyers can take advantage when imported products are briefly cheaper than local. Big companies can switch between buying imports or buying from local farmers easily. But, farmers cannot turn their farms on and off.
With so much buying power concentrated in a few big customers, when these customers switch where they buy, even for just a season, local farmers are forced to sell at a loss to compete or shut down, or both. It takes decades to build up a farm. Some crops only bear yields many years after planting and preparation. Farms that had to shut down when imports were cheap cannot revive only for the years when imports are expensive. As long as big business do all the buying and are not consistent with where they buy, our pool of farmers shrinks and food inflation increases.
Eating Local Food Could Be The Ultimate Healthy Living Choice
Agriculture is critical for food security, inflation protection and employment. It is an industry we need to preserve and cultivate. But, farming isn't just a job, it is also a life choice with many challenges. A farmer is a farmer for life. When you support local farmers, you don't just support your own healthy living, you support local families.
Supporting the local economy means being sure of where your food is grown. Being sure of where your food is grown means ditching the processed foods and opting for single ingredient whole foods with clearly marked origins. Switching from processed foods to whole foods automatically makes our diet healthier in almost every case. There are a plethora of other reasons why local foods are often healthier foods. Read more about why eating local foods is a healthy food choice.
With an agriculture sector that produces all major grains except rice, all major veg oils except palm oil, all our fruits and vegetables as well as a huge range of nuts, wines and other products, it is not only possible to eat entirely locally grown food, but it is becoming necessary - for our own health and the sake of our economy. It's time we paid more attention to where our food is grown.