Implications for just agroecological transitions of food and agriculture systems

A series by the African Centre for Biodiversity

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Fact sheet 5 is now released!

In this series focusing on ultra-processed food (UPF) on the African continent, we explore the impacts of shifting dietary patterns, with increasing reliance on low-cost, ultra-processed foods (UPFs) globally, and in Africa in particular, in the context of an urgent call for a just, agroecological food system transition.

UPF has become ubiquitous with the growing westernisation of diets on the continent, yet gravely threaten the health and well-being of people and the planet. The extreme power of the food industry, linked to the increasing industrialisation, concentration, and commodification of African seed, agriculture, retail, foods, and diets requires urgent policy and societal attention and response.

Despite the massive contribution of UPF to land use and land-cover change, climate change, and biodiversity loss, it has failed to garner the necessary urgent attention in international fora, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In fact, it is completely neglected in the Global Biodiversity Framework, finalised in December 2022.

Through this series, we aim to firmly advocate for an agroecological food system transition that situates smallholder farmers, territorial markets, traditional retailers and the dynamic networks that facilitate the movement of produce in the centre. This will, inter alia, entail testing UPF against the 13 principles of agroecology developed in 2019 by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) High Level Panel of Experts on Food and Nutrition (HLPE); in particular, HLPE principles 9 (social values and diets); 10 (fairness); 11 (connectivity); and 13 (participation) (HLPE, 2019).

As we embark on this learning journey, we invite you – our friends and comrades – to join us in exploring these intersecting issues, so that we might better equip ourselves with the knowledge and information to regain our power and agency, and redefine and restore our broken food system.

In the first part of the series, we attempt to succinctly describe and define UPF, how it differs from other foods, and outline the major concerns with UPF.

UPF consumption in Africa

In the second part, we delve into the consumption of UPF in Africa: shifting dietary patterns linked to food environments and personal motivations; where foods are purchased and the role of policy in shaping food accessibility and affordability.

This factsheet explores UPF consumption in both rural and urban areas; the relationship between food environments and food choice; systemic injustices and linkages between production, consumption and trade agreements, as part of the discussion on shifting dietary patterns increasingly dependent on readily available, cheap and nutritionally-void UPF. While there is a clear trend in this direction, there is still a high consumption of vegetables, legumes and whole grains in the region compared to much of the world, linked primarily to traditional retail and supply chains.

Currently, African states tend to invoke an antipathy towards the informal food sector, where informal food retailers predominate and are the primary source of healthy food for the urban poor in particular. Current policies encourage and facilitate the growth of private sector food supply chains, which translates into more processed food and the means to distribute it more efficiently and cheaply.

The increasing industrialisation, concentration and commodification of African seed, agriculture, retail, foods and diets, along with lack of regulation, accountability and disclosure of how food is being grown, manufactured and consumed, requires urgent attention to shift state mandates, policies and, ultimately, realities on the ground. This demands agroecological and territorial conceptualisations of food and agricultural dynamics, placing smallholder farmers, territorial markets and traditional retailers at the centre.

Part 1: Introduction to UPF

Part 2: UPF consumption in Africa

Cover artwork from High Point 2022, by Isaac Zavale, @zacatwork

Dictatorship of UPF food companies over African diets and food markets

The ultra-processed food (UPF) market is dominated by corporations, with the most powerful manufacturers being mega multinational companies like Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Coca-Cola Co, Danone, Mondelez, and Kraft Heinz Co, from the Global North. These behemoths held 53% of the UPF market in 2019, generating profits from multiple global regions through their own and franchised infrastructure. The UPF industry is already 1.6 times larger than the global food production and processing industry and generated more than US$1.5 trillion in 2023.

With little nutritional value and known negative impacts on the environment, UPF are designed to be hyper-palatable and quasi-addictive.

Mega UPF multinational corporations have the economic scale and resources, including infrastructure, to drive the manufacturing and peddling of UPF products, at cheaper prices than healthier food options. There is more profit to be made in UPF – comprising only a few ingredients from commodity value chains (maize, sugar, soy, etc.), with products made to last a long time so there is a lower risk of spoilage.

The excessive profits made in UPF are then converted into predatory marketing campaigns to drive demand and influence the policy and regulatory environment. As the UPF market grows, it is also increasingly financialised. Most of the profit is distributed to large institutional shareholders, like Black Rock, Vanguard, Capital Group, State Street, and Norway’s sovereign wealth fund. These investors are then able to influence UPF corporations’ business strategies to deliver more short-term returns, further marginalising and indeed, imperilling social and environmental considerations.

Since consumption of UPF in highly industrialised countries has reached about 50% or more of total consumed dietary energy, and as these markets stagnate, mega-corporations have turned their gaze to Africa. The rapid penetration of UPF into Africa’s food system is of grave concern, as many African countries already face the double burden of malnutrition and food insecurity. UPF consumption ramps up the risk of non-communicable diseases, the treatment of which often falls on already under-capacitated national health systems. It also deepens the stranglehold that food corporations have on the food system and can orient it towards a profit-generation bundle of commodities.

The direct and indirect influence of UPF corporations in Africa will influence supply chains, market consolidation, and the types of crops grown, as UPF uses a small number of commodity crops to create their products. In turn, it will displace traditional dietary patterns, further deplete the diversity of agrobiodiversity on the continent, and constitute a serious impediment to a just transition towards agroecology based on the principles of food sovereignty.

Multi-pronged capture of consumer markets in Africa by UPF companies

In this fourth part of our ultra-processed food (UPF) in Africa fact sheet series, we explore how mega UPF corporations (Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Coca-Cola Co, Danone, Mondelez, and Kraft Heinz Co, among others) use their excessive and undue influence and financial clout to embed and consolidate their power at the national level and subvert governments’ attempts to regulate the advertising, marketing, and consumption of their “fake food” products. The actions of these companies and their products not only undermine public health, but contribute to its related crises.

Examples of some of their multi-pronged strategies include creating a demand for their quasi-addictive and low- or no-nutrition products by way of predatory digital marketing, using sophisticated big data analytics to cynically manipulate people into purchases, particularly children. They also insert themselves in corporate social investment programmes and public-private partnerships in which their UPFs are pushed as “healthy” options.

More insidiously, they have bought or bullied their way into gaining political influence over food systems by ‘buying’ the endorsement of nutrition bodies and councils. These corporations also make foreign direct investments into the infrastructure needed to manufacture or distribute UPF, often gaining tax incentives or cheap access to natural resources as African governments compete for this funding. In turn, these corporations are enabled to influence policy frameworks related to the consumption of their products and drive self-regulation. Co-option and subverting of scientific nutrition evidence seem to be the norm in the effort to downplay the known harmful consequences of UPF consumption as these corporations fund their own research, sponsor nutritional bodies, and set their voluntary nutrition standards. Beyond their easy access to mass retail outlets, UPF corporations have also established hyper-localised distribution systems by investing in the expansion of small stores or door-to-door sales networks – on condition that their products are pushed.

The implications for Africa’s food and farming systems are dire, including worsening health and environmental outcomes (further expanded on in forthcoming fact sheets), and fracturing of traditional healthy nutritious food systems and diets.

It will not be easy in Africa to stop the spread of UPF – designed to be hyper-palatable and quasi-addictive – into communities, even the most rural. While the long-term struggle for transitions out of industrial food systems to agroecology, based on the principles of food sovereignty, must continue, widespread public awareness is necessary, as are discussions within food sovereignty movements in Africa on how to tackle this onslaught.

Read fact sheet four here.

Part 3: Dictatorship of UPF food companies over African diets and food markets

Part 4: Multi-pronged capture of consumer markets in Africa by UPF companies

Cover artwork from Noord Taxi Rank, Joburg, by Isaac Zavale, @zacatwork

Exploitation of socioeconomic inequities drives UPF consumption and malnutrition

There are myriad intersecting and interacting structural inequities that perpetuate rural poverty, hunger, and malnutrition in a never-ending cycle on the African continent. In this fifth fact sheet of the series, we delve into the complexity of some of these socioeconomic inequities and argue that these are being perversely exploited by the ultra-processed food (UPF) giants to drive the purchase and consumption of UPF in Africa. This is overlayed by the changing socio- and politico-economic conditions, which provide further market opportunities for UPF as more accessible, affordable, and desirable food options in both urban and rural contexts.

We are concerned that, generally speaking, the current state of the UPF discussion fails to account for or address the systemic and structural factors that underpin the context for consumption of UPF. We are, furthermore, concerned that the current discourse on agroecology has a rural bias, with limited relevance for urban populations, farm and industrial workers in the food sector, and other actors across the rural-urban food system continuum. There is a need to deepen the discourse on a just agroecological transition in Africa and situate it within the current food system realities, in both urban and rural areas.

Read fact sheet five here.

Part 5: Exploitation of socioeconomic inequities drives UPF consumption and malnutrition

Cover artwork: Mam Shangan by Isaac Zavale, @zacatwork

Next, the series covers the environmental impacts of UPF in Africa, followed by further fact sheets dealing with health, regulatory and political issues. Please keep a lookout for these. We welcome your feedback on our UPF fact sheet series – email comms@acbio.org.za.