A just transition to a sustainable food system


While transforming the energy sector is viewed as the core of the just transition, transforming the food system is equally important says Brittany Kesselman.

Transforming the food system is a critical part of the just transition. We tend to think of the energy sector as the core of the just transition, but an examination of the contribution of the food system to climate change, its overall unsustainability as well as the injustice of it, shows how important the food system is to this change.

Further, more holistic definitions of the just transition, such as that of the Climate Justice Alliance, show that it incorporates many sectors. They say: “Just Transition is a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy. This means approaching production and consumption cycles holistically and waste-free. The transition itself must be just and equitable; redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future through reparations…” (emphasis added). If a just transition involves a shift to a low-carbon, waste-free, regenerative economy, then the food system must be fundamentally transformed.

First, what do we mean by “the food system?” It can be understood as “i) the activities, actors and institutions who grow, process, distribute, acquire, consume and dispose of food and how they interact with other systems and actors, and ii) the outcomes of these activities contributing to food security”. This means everything and everyone involved in food production, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal, from the manufacturers of agricultural inputs like fertiliser, to farmers and farmworkers, to the big food manufacturing companies and retailers as well as the small-scale agro-processors and food vendors, through to every one of us as food consumers.

The global industrial food system: unsustainable, unhealthy, unjust

The current food system can be characterised as a global, industrial food system. At each stage of the value chain, a few large multinational corporations tend to dominate. This is especially true in terms of agro-chemical inputs, seeds, processing of grains and other commodity crops, food and beverage manufacturing, as well as the supermarket sector.

In this food system, food is produced as a commodity to sell, rather than being viewed as a basic human right. The general trend is toward larger and larger farms, using mechanised production and high levels of agro-chemical inputs to grow monocultures (only one type of crop).

These large farms are integrated into global value chains, in which agricultural commodities move around the world for processing and retail. As a result of this global interconnectedness, these food chains are vulnerable to shocks, as we saw during COVID-19 lockdowns.

GHG emissions in the agri-food chain

According to recent research by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 31 per cent of human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions originate from the world’s agri-food systems. Within this huge amount, about 44% of emissions are from within the farm gate, while about 35% come from supply chain processes. Deforestation, livestock manure, food waste and the use of fossil fuels on farms (to fuel machinery as well as in nitrogen fertilisers) are all major sources of GHG emissions. Plastic packaging is also made from fossil fuels. Beyond its contribution to climate change, the global, industrial food system causes other serious environmental damage as well, in the form of large amounts of waste, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, high levels of water use, as well as land, air and water pollution.


In addition to the carbon emissions and other environmental destruction caused by the global industrial food system, it is also unhealthy. The food produced through industrial agriculture is frequently genetically modified (GM) in order to allow it to withstand being sprayed with toxic herbicides. Those agricultural products are then heavily processed by food manufacturers to enable them to travel long distances and sit on supermarket shelves. In the process, the nutrients are lost and large amounts of sugar, salt and fat make their way into our diets. As a result, many people suffer vitamin and mineral deficiencies, while at the same time consuming an excess of calories—a condition called hidden hunger. This brings with it a number of health problems, especially non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart conditions, strokes, and some cancers.

Agricultural products are heavily processed by food manufacturers to enable them to travel long distances and sit on supermarket shelves


A discussion of the role of food in the just transition would not be complete without considering the injustices of the current global industrial food system. While there is enough food in the world to feed everyone, one in nine people still go hungry, while over a quarter of the world’s population (26%) is moderately or severely food insecure. At the same time, one in eight adults are obese. Hunger and food insecurity tend to mirror racial, class and gender disparities. For example, while food insecurity is almost non-existent amongst white South Africans (1.35% food insecure and 9.4% at risk of hunger), the majority of the black population is hungry or at risk of hunger (30.3% food insecure and 30.3% at risk of hunger). Female-headed households are also more likely to experience food insecurity. While corporations in the food sector continued to generate profits during COVID-19, millions of South Africans ran out of money to buy food. What could be more unjust?

Food sovereignty and agroecology

So how do we move from this exploitative, extractive, carbon-intensive food system to a more just, sustainable and regenerative one? We need to move towards food sovereignty, which has been defined by the peasant movement, La Vía Campesina, as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” This rights-based approach to locally controlled food systems is critical to a just transition.

The food sovereignty movement calls for the replacement of industrial agriculture with agroecology, a kind of farming that works with natural systems, instead of against them. Agroecology is based on ecological principles like building life in the soil, recycling nutrients, the dynamic management of biodiversity and energy conservation. Agroecology is understood as a practice, a science and a movement, bringing together sustainable farming methods, recognition of traditional and indigenous knowledge and more equitable food systems.  

Beginnings of a just transition

So how do we achieve food sovereignty? How do we transition to agroecological food systems? There is no one path to follow, as the conditions in each place, and at each scale, are unique. However, small-scale agroecological initiatives and solidarity-based food programmes can help to show us the way.

In the face of the disruptions to food systems wrought by COVID-19, localised initiatives sprang up to ensure everyone had access to healthy food. Across South Africa, community action networks sprang up to address hunger, with volunteers providing meals and other assistance to fellow community members. Around Johannesburg, for example, the C19 People’s Coalition sought to link small-scale farmers who lost access to their usual markets to communities in need of food assistance. Unlike most government food packages, which were procured from large corporations and contained non-perishable items with almost no nutritional value, these vegetable packages sought to support the livelihoods of small-scale farmers while also promoting the health of vulnerable households.

Food gardens

While interest in planting food gardens also increased during lockdown, some urban farms have been around for a long time. In Johannesburg, the Bertrams Inner City Farm and Siyakhana are two examples of agroecological farms supplying healthy produce to their local communities, outside of the usual corporate value chains.

Siyakhana supplies healthy produce to their local communities, outside of the usual corporate value chain

In addition to selling direct to consumers in their neighbourhoods, they participate in other alternative forms of distribution such as vegetable box schemes and weekend markets. Refiloe Molefe, who runs Bertrams Inner City Farm, also supports food relief in her area by operating a soup kitchen at the garden. Environmental activists and agroecological farmers started the Ubuntu project during COVID-19 lockdown, to provide access to fresh healthy produce. In addition to donating food to those in need, the Ubuntu project also distributed seeds, seedlings and other farming supplies, so that households could grow their own food. Many agroecological initiatives exist through South Africa, in both urban and rural areas.

Refiloe Molefe, who runs Bertrams Inner City Farm, also supports food relief in her area by operating a soup kitchen at the garden


Of course, attempting to operate outside of the global industrial food system is not without its challenges. Land and water are costly in urban and peri-urban areas. Accessing local, non-GM seeds and natural inputs such as compost and manure can be difficult. In addition, people are so used to consuming processed foods at supermarkets, that they do not always want to shift to buying fresh produce at an urban farm (or from a box scheme) and cooking it themselves. Marketing these initiatives, to let consumers know they exist, can be a lot of work for farmers who are busy working in their fields. There is very limited government support available to small-scale farmers, and it is not usually oriented towards agroecology.

Despite the challenges, these small fields of change continue to spring up. With support from their local communities, as well as from movements advocating a just transition, they can grow and multiply. Agroecological production for local markets, alternative distribution systems and community solidarity are three critical components of a transition to a food system that is low-carbon, environmentally sustainable and socially just.

Brittany Kesselman is a Postdoctoral research fellow, Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP) at Wits University

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Brittany Kesselman
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