Predicting the impact of climate change on food security in Worcester

By Professor Julian May, Director, Centre of Excellence in Food Security, University of the Western Cape (UWC)

The EDP, together with the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape, the Southern Africa Food Lab at Stellenbosch University, and the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, in partnership with the Breede River Municipality (BVM) recently undertook an innovative research “learning journey” in the Western Cape Town of Worcester. Professor Julian May writes on how the learning journey methodology can help to surface local solutions to global crises that will affect food security.

This piece was originally published by Business Day (12 July 2022) here.

The extreme heatwaves that recently swept across Europe, the United States and Japan are a reminder that climate change is upon us. The chronic flooding events in KwaZulu-Natal in April and May, and the ongoing drought in the Eastern Cape, following so recently after the Western Cape drought between 2015-17, are clear indications that South Africa is also experiencing the destructive force of climate change. In fact, evidence shows that Africa will be disproportionality affected by climate change with average temperature increases being higher than the global average. Recent research has shown that the temperature of the interior of Southern Africa is already rising at twice the global rate. It is little wonder then, that the International Panel on Climate Change has identified Southern Africa as a climate change ‘hot spot’ because of the growing risks of droughts, flooding, wildfires, and disease.

Part of the learning journey involved observing local food shopping dynamics on a regular weekend. Saturdays are often the busiest day in Parkersdam, Worcester. Credit: Ashraf Hendricks

Despite these events, the international community is making little progress towards mitigating climate change via national government commitments to reduce carbon emissions under the auspices of the United Nations. This is not sufficient, and it is now clear that being able to adapt to the now inevitable impacts of climate change is critically important. 

This ability to adapt is particularly important for the agricultural sector in South Africa which is especially vulnerable to climate change. Although currently food secure, and a significant exporter of agricultural produce, South Africa has limited fresh water supplies, generally poor soils and faces high input costs. Evidence strongly indicates that climate change will endanger South Africa’s agricultural production both in terms of food crops and livestock, threatening not only the quantity, quality, and price of food available and essential jobs in the sector, but also overall economic growth. While several policies and plans exist at national level which deal with the agricultural sector and climate change, they remain largely uncoordinated, and tend to focus on efforts to mitigate emissions from the sector rather than address how the sector can adapt to climate change to maintain food production.

This lacuna is disturbing given that millions of South Africans are already food insecure and eat nutritionally poor diets, while one in four children are stunted because they do not receive adequate nutrients for healthy growth. As this ongoing crisis in South Africa’s food system is likely to be exacerbated by climate change, it has become increasingly clear that local actors in the food system need to understand what specific adaptation actions they could take to counter the negative impacts of climate change on food security.

It is to this end that the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape, the Southern Africa Food Lab at Stellenbosch University, the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership, in partnership with the Breede River Municipality (BVM) recently undertook an innovative research ‘learning journey’ in the Western Cape Town of Worcester. Sandwiched between mountain ranges to the north and south which supply fresh water, Worcester is situated in a valley that produces a wide range of food including wheat, various fruit crops, vegetables, piggeries, and broiler chickens. The nearby Hex River Valley is one of the largest producers of table grapes in South Africa, and the areas is increasingly becoming known for its soft-citrus production. Notwithstanding this abundance, Worcester is typical of most South African towns in that a quarter of its children under five are malnourished, while many adults subsist on nutritionally poor diets which results in poor health outcomes. It is this paradox between abundant food production and food insecurity, within the context of the ongoing climate crisis, that the Worcester ‘learning journey’ explored. 

A ‘learning journey’ is a process whereby a broad and inclusive range of participants literally undertake a journey to explore a complex system, in this instance the ‘food system’ in Worcester, to gain first-hand experience of challenges, and investigate ‘territorial’, or local, solutions to these challenges.  We have found that ‘learning journeys’ can ‘flush out’ habitual thinking and assumptions about problems enabling participants to ‘think differently’ and come up with new and innovative solutions. In addition, by focussing on specific localities, participants gain new perspectives on the complexity of processes related to food at the level of place rather than in aggregate. We have witnessed how this approach contributes to thinking about how to address specific place-based challenges within the wider context of food systems, breaking with ‘one size fits all solutions’. In terms of responding and adapting to climate change, it empowers participants to take stock of existing local potential and to activate local ‘assets’ through direct engagement with local populations. It is an approach that recognises that people live in places which have specific challenges and not in simply defined economic sectors.

Participants of the learning journey hear about the experience and challenges of early childhood development centres in Zwelethemba in providing nutritious food to children in the area. Credit: Ashraf Hendricks

In Worcester, participants, made up of community members, government officials (local and provincial), councillors in the municipalities, activists, academics, food advocacy groups and Early Childhood Development (ECD) practitioners, undertook walking journeys over two days in two areas which are essential parts of the town’s food system. On day one we visited Durban Street in Parkersdam which is known for its wholesale and informal trade in fresh fruit and vegetables, its butcheries, several non-franchise fast food outlets, and a large formal food retailer. During our journey through the historical heart of Worcester we talked to and purchased food from people directly involved in Worcester’s food system. From them we learnt that much of the fresh produce sold by retailers is sourced in Cape Town, rather than locally where much of it is grown. Nonetheless, traders were able to offer competitively priced fresh fruit from local farmers which had been deemed too small for the export market. They also told us that crime is a problem both for them and their customers. Participants observed that butchers stocked chicken from several overseas locations despite Worcester being home to a very large poultry company that contributes 6 percent of South Africa’s broiler chickens. 

On day two, we visited Mayinjana Avenue at the entrance to Zwelethemba ‘township’. The avenue is known for its concentration of educational establishments, which includes a number of ECD facilities. Here, ECD school principals introduced several significant food system challenges to participants. They expressed their frustration at the BVM’s apparent inability or unwillingness to release unused land for food gardens which principals want to use to provide fresh vegetables for learners. They also articulated how difficult and expensive it was to officially register their centres, something which is made particularly problematic because of the inability of some parents to regularly pay ECD fees due to the seasonal nature of their work on farms. 

By focussing on these two places, or ‘territories’, we can understand food system challenges at a micro level, which are oftentimes distinct from problems that are revealed at the macro level. This localised focus highlights the multi-dimensional nature of food systems, the roles and diversity of actors within these systems, and their differing abilities to act in the face of challenges like climate change. It also reveals which local actors can be ‘activated’ through collaborative action to implement adaptive actions. 

The food system is complex and the learning journey process reveals people’s experience first-hand. InZwelethembe, residents struggle to access nutritious food and basic services. Credit: Ashraf Hendricks

After each ‘learning journey’, we came together in ‘learning labs’ where we shared our experiences and insights. These labs were guided by the understanding that we would listen carefully to what each of us had to say before voicing our respective opinions – ‘to listen twice and speak once’. By following this intention, and suspending our automatic assumptions, a listening and learning environment was created whereby pre-existing perceptions were challenged, and new ideas and collaborative proposals emerged. For example, by the end of day two, a strong commitment was made by the provincial Department of Agriculture to work with the local ECD Forum to support food gardens in Worcester. Several Councillors from different areas of Worcester also agreed to follow-up with BVM officials to explore how vacant land near ECD facilities could be used for food gardens. Lastly, participants argued for the creation of a fresh food market in Worcester which would alleviate the need for retailers to travel to Cape Town for their fruit and vegetables. 

Alongside these immediate practical responses and suggestions, the discussion about vacant land and food gardens that took place during our ‘learning labs’ initiated a much wider debate about what kinds of action could be taken at local and national level to try and pressure national government to rethink how it manages vacant land. It is this sort of wider debate that can take place during a ‘learning lab’ which begins the process of asking more fundamental longer-term questions about the systemic problems that exist within the food system in South Africa.  

While ‘Learning journeys’ and ‘learning labs’ are designed to encourage informality to release people from their traditional roles and preconceptions, they must, nonetheless, be carefully organised. Participants need to be thoughtfully selected to make certain that they are broadly representative, and care must be taken to manage interactions and discussions to prevent their co-option by those who are more comfortable talking in public. In fact, it may be that certain people and groups need to be excluded from certain ‘learning journeys’ to ensure that no one group dominates proceedings. Care must also be taken to protect their personal information as required by South Africa’s Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA).

Jackie Saaiman from Lima Rural Development Foundation works to support the young child sector inpartnership with Do More Foundation. Credit: Ashraf Hendricks

‘Learning journeys’ are not supposed to be one-off events as a requirement of the process is that conversations must not end at the close of each journey. It is therefore critical for organisers to ensure that participants continue to connect and re-connect as they prototype and begin to implement the solutions that emerge, and continue to emerge, from ongoing dialogues. To this end, further ‘learning journeys’ are anticipated in Worcester which will take place in other areas and with other participants who are part of the town’s food system. 

It is also critical that organisers of ‘learning journeys’ anticipate and think through how to handle and respond to any potentially difficult issues that may emerge during discussions. We undertook this process before our ‘learning journey’ by anticipating that the question of who owns food wholesalers and retailers in the town may arise. Therefore, when xenophobic comments about changing ownership patterns emerged during the ‘learning lab’, we were prepared for them, and a carefully managed and ultimately fruitful discussion took place about what it meant to be considered ‘local’ in Worcester. While this issue was not resolved over the two days, it is one that can be re-visited during the additional ‘learning journeys’ that will take place in Worcester. 

The insights gained from the learning journeys are being combined with urban food system mapping data collected in Worcester using household surveys. These ‘food consumption dynamics’ will be paired with spatial modelling approaches that will allow the BVM to understand the geographical nature of the local food system. As this analysis will include predications of future urban growth areas, alongside food system data exploring the relationship between the food retail environment and nutrient security, it will enable BVM to take locally targeted mitigating and adaptive actions against the likely negative impacts of climate change.  The approach has attracted the interest of the Western Cape Provincial Department of Agriculture and could be used in other locations in South Africa.

Climate-resilient food systems will only develop in towns like Worcester through local cooperation which is driven by knowledge co-production and the creation of shared visions of what a socially just and sustainable food system looks like. We believe that with consistent support from local government structures and through innovative processes like ‘learning journeys’ it is possible to make substantive and long-term changes to local food systems which promise to alleviate many of the negative impacts that climate change will bring. The recent ‘learning journey’ in Worcester was a very positive first step in this process. 

Professor Julian May receives funding from the National Research Foundation and the Food and Agricultural Organisation