Insights into our food system: Why did catering indigenous local food at the National Seed Dialogue go so horribly wrong?...

Cassava and sweet potato stall at the market on Kerk Street in central Johannesburg.

n December 2017, the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) hosted a National Seed Dialogue and Celebration at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. The event brought together farmers and civil society organisations from eight provinces, as well as from across the region, to celebrate the work that small-scale farmers do as custodians of seeds, and to share the challenges that they face. The event consisted of lively dialogue on various aspects of seed systems in South Africa, as well as seed displays and exchange, sharing of literature on seed and creative performances.

So often conferences and activist events that focus on inequities within the food system and the need for good, ‘clean’ food serve meals and snacks consisting of food produced by the very system that is being critiqued; and participants and organisers rarely acknowledge it. By the same token, participants at a conference on the living conditions of marginalised people often stay in fancy hotels. It all seems rather incongruous.

While many self-aware organisations earnestly try to address this when planning events, for the most part, the changes remain pretty superficial. This is not out of dubious intent, but because rejecting mainstream food, accommodation and venues creates masses more work, costs much more and may involve establishing new supply chains and systems between different players. It is fraught with complications, as I share in this blog.

At the National Seed Dialogue and Celebration, ACB wanted to serve locally sourced indigenous food produced by small-scale farmers and processors; and showcase biological and cultural variety. These values were integral to the theme of the dialogue and so we wanted to see them exemplified through every layer of the event.

Cassava and sweet potato stall at the market on Kerk Street in central Johannesburg.

In preparation, Linzi Lewis, researcher and advocacy officer with the ACB, and I, in consultation with the rest of the ACB team, sat down to plan a menu that would evoke a sense of hospitality – we felt that this should be at the very heart of the event, so that participants would feel welcomed and their presence honoured. At a conference, participants can exchange numerous statistics and facts in the plenary sessions, but without hospitality, they are unlikely to feel the sense of safety necessary for deep engagement and relationship and trust-building that such an event makes possible.

Although the discourse on seed biodiversity may be bleak, we wanted the food to offer a sense of optimism; hope in the dark. We wanted to show abundance, vibrant colour and variety –particularly from the SADC region – different types of rice, a variety of beans, an array of imifino (green leafy vegetables), as well as a spread of fresh fruit. We envisioned the meals as a way of celebrating farmers, who, over thousands of years, have bred all of this diversity; as well as honouring the tenacity of modern-day farmers who keep open pollinated and land race seed varieties alive. Despite the ever increasing pressure to produce only food that will travel best and last longest in the fridge, and in the face of increasingly restrictive laws on the cultivation and exchange of seed (such as the Plant Improvement and Plant Breeders’ Rights Acts), small-scale farmers continue to produce an abundance of varieties.

A variety of grains, lentils and coffee in an Ethiopian shop in central Johannesburg

As South Africa’s staple food is genetically modified maize, indigenous grains, such as millet and sorghum are frequently overlooked and dismissed. Even when people are recounting their favourite foods, millet and sorghum are rarely remembered. Rekindling a love for the indigenous foods of South and Southern Africa is a multi-pronged challenge against global multinationals and the diets they prescribe through subsidies and trade deals. Consumers’ tastes have been manipulated by marketing, accessibility and flavour enhancers. Through the menu for the National Seed Dialogue, we hoped to bring some of these neglected crops back to the table and, hopefully, evoke some not-too-distant memories of grandparents who used to grow and prepare them.

At least half of the participants at the conference were small-scale farmers and we wanted them to be central, not only to the content of the event, but also by ensuring that the bulk of fresh produce used in the meals had been grown by small-scale farmers, and where possible, through agro-ecological methods.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of small-scale producers in Gauteng alone, many of whom – at least to some extent – do not use chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Inspiring work is being done by initiatives such as Izindaba Zokudla, an action research project based at the University of Johannesburg that has brought together a multitude of small-scale farmers in Soweto, creating opportunities for developing a sustainable food system in the region. Through these networks we felt that we may be able to find the produce that we were looking for.

Fresh produce from members of Izindaba Zokudla on sale at the Soweto Food Market.

The first caterer we met with was quite openly uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the kind of food we were proposing. He agreed to provide us with a quote, but did not respond to our emails after that, despite being provided with a list of potential suppliers for vegetables, meat and snacks. The second caterer was visibly excited by our proposition and we felt that we had found the right fit. He was familiar with our menu ideas, both from his upbringing and from recent events with a similar theme. He had interesting ideas for where to get some of the beans and grains in the Johannesburg CBD. Our communications with him continued to be reassuring and enthusiastic.

On the day, however, it all fell apart. The caterer had unilaterally changed the menu, was disorganised, and much of the food was mediocre, at best. Many of the dishes and items we had agreed on were not present or were provided in insufficient quantities for the number of guests. This dismal outcome raised some issues about our food system that are useful to reflect on, whether we are farmers, activists, consumers, caterers, retailers, or occupy any number of overlapping and interlocking positions related to food production.

Know thy farmer

As the old adage goes, you may need a doctor or a lawyer at specific times in your life; however, every day, three times a day, you require a farmer. And yet, for the most part, we have lost connection with the very people who are responsible for ensuring that our bellies are full. The majority of consumers, retailers, caterers and even policymakers have become so removed from where our food comes from, that we are not paying attention to the precariousness of being a farmer in South Africa today, or to the even more precarious, and at times abusive, working conditions experienced by farmworkers.

Farmworkers are recognised as some of the worst paid and treated employees in South Africa. Oxfam has recently released statistics that reveal that top executives earn in the region of 541 times more than temporary farmworkers[1]. If we are what we eat, then we are inextricably joined by our stomachs to the exploitation that thrives in our agricultural system. By preferring central industrial markets and supermarkets, we continue to be blind to what is happening on farms. By contrast, building a web of relationships between consumers, retailers and farmers provides the opportunity for a greater degree of empathy across this network.

At the National Seed Dialogue, we attempted to connect the caterer with networks of smallholder farmers. However, it is not normal catering practice to budget time for sourcing produce from a multitude of small-scale producers, which could take many interactions over several weeks; while a trip to a central industrial food market would take a single morning.

However, relationships that would be initiated through engaging a number of small-scale farmers could offer potential for building a network between caterers, farmers and consumers in the long run.  Subsequent to the National Seed Dialogue, one of the farmers informed me that a caterer had purchased her food for a recent event and had remarked on the vast improvement in quality and taste over the industrially produced equivalents. This example illustrates that these relationships have the potential to grow.

Within the Izindaba Zokudla network there are also many people who make achaars and other processed foods. There is no need to purchase commercially produced achaar, when many grandmothers are running home agro-processing industries and using the proceeds to fill their family’s bellies. At the event, bambara nuts, roasted peanuts, achaar, umqombothi and fresh fruit juices were all prepared by small-scale food processors in Soweto and Bertrams. This turned out to be possibly the most successful aspect of the catering. Each of the small businesses enjoyed the extra business and also the opportunity to showcase their abilities.

Our catering experience demonstrated a dire lack of adequate linkages between small-scale farmers and their potential markets. It seems that we are in urgent need of grassroots solidarity economies that consciously link up farmers and consumers in ways that are practical and mutually beneficial, sharing the risks but also the abundance.

Informal traders

Informal markets in the centre of Johannesburg are some of the few places you are likely to find varieties of dry goods and vegetables that are not readily available in supermarkets, sourced from a mixture of industrialised agriculture and informal supply chains within South Africa and across the SADC region. They are also one of the primary suppliers of fresh food to Johannesburg’s growing urban population.

While informal traders demonstrate ingenuity and tenacity in entrepreneurship that should be celebrated, we have seen repeated attempts to push traders out of the CBD by the City of Johannesburg. In many cases, this has involved harassment and their goods being confiscated. The City’s argument against informal traders is that they are difficult to regulate and create mess on the pavements and streets. While this may be true, it needs to be seen within the context of the benefits they offer urban dwellers. What would it take for networks of informal traders and small-scale agro-ecological farmers to join forces, enabling a vibrant economy of locally produced and consumed food that keeps value circulating between small businesses rather than centralised industrial food markets, supermarkets and shopping malls?

In planning the menu for the National Seed Dialogue, we encouraged the caterer to purchase foods from market stalls in the centre of Johannesburg, some of which he was already familiar with. Buying from informal traders is another space where consistent support from customers can actively contribute to more stable livelihoods; allowing relationships and connections to develop that are unlikely to flourish in supermarkets and shopping malls.

Bringing indigenous foods back to the table

While in many other countries, local foods are sought after and prepared with pride, in South Africa there appears to be little regard for indigenous foods. Colonial and global trade regimes have cultivated dependence on maize, through the goldmining boom, trade agreements, subsidies and aid, as well as through land appropriation and the migrant labour system, with their consequent dislocation from traditional agricultural techniques.

Over time, these patterns have also come to be reflected in people’s taste preferences and even what they consider to be food. For example, the humble but nutritious marog plant, Amaranthus hybridus, can be found poking out of broken pavements and growing abundantly on dumping sites. It is well adapted and hardy, and both the leaves and seeds are delicious and versatile in their uses. However, despite its very wide distribution it is rarely even noticed, let alone harvested.

Indigenous foods, such as ting (a delicious fermented sorghum pap), a variety of imifino and bambara nuts were integral to the design of the menu. Unfortunately, very little of this was served to our guests. Such indigenous foods have been linked to a multitude of health benefits, including improved health of people suffering from major chronic illnesses prevalent in South Africa, such as diabetes and hypertension[2]. These illnesses put massive strain on the state’s healthcare system.

Indigenous legumes and grains brought to the National Seed Dialogue and Celebration by seed custodians from across the region.

Communities experience a growing dependency on processed foods that are high in sugars, such as white maize. This is exacerbated incrementally as communities lose access to indigenous foods through loss of land, and by a system that subsidises maize and other imported monocultures.  Foods high in readily available refined carbohydrates that barely cover basic nutritional needs are convenient and cheap, in a country where the majority of consumers often work long shifts and are both cash strapped and time-poor.

I am because you are

The disastrous catering at the National Seed Dialogue was clearly a reflection of deep-seated social, health, environmental and governance issues within the food system. These issues need to be addressed from many angles, such as providing access to markets, changing value chains and addressing the burden of colonisation, as it manifests in exploitation of workers, global trade agreements and aid.

In addition, these issues reflect the ‘disconnect’ from land and history that afflicts many urban dwellers of various classes and ethnicities; although in different ways and intensities.

Strikingly the issues also reflect an absence of essential relationships between each of us (regardless of the role we play within the food system) and the other role players – plants and animals included – that are essential for ensuring that we eat every day.

[1] Seeth, A. 2018. The issue of inequality: When CEOs earn 541 times more than workers. City Press. 24 January 2018. Available: https://city-press.news24.com/News/the-issue-of-inequality-when-ceos-ea…

[2] Simoloka, A. 2016. Indigenous African foods: five forgotten super-foods. Mail & Guardian. 19 September 2016. Available: https://mg.co.za/article/2016-09-19-00-indigenous-african-foods-five-fo…

Claire Rousell is an artist and activist with a particular focus on the relationship between humans and nature.