Within the first few weeks of the South African COVID-19 lockdown, it became clear that food insecurity was a pressing crisis in the country. Government and civil society’s immediate responses focused on food parcels and vouchers, soup kitchens and other crisis interventions. Increasingly, attention has turned to “Build Back Better” efforts, and government, community groups and Community Action Networks (CANs) have focused a considerable amount of attention on starting up food gardens. Amidst the urgency of doing something, it is useful to ask: “Can urban agriculture address food insecurity?”
This is not a new question, and food insecurity is far from a new challenge. In 2008 we conducted a survey of three low-income areas in Cape Town and found 80% of the sampled households were either moderately or severely food insecure. Follow-up work has found that over 60% of households across the city were unable to afford a nutritious diet.
The COVID-19-related food insecurity crisis has deep roots. In the 2008 food security survey, we found that only five percent of households were consuming any foods they’d grown. Why, in the wake of such high food insecurity, were so few households growing food? Could urban agriculture address this?
The existing data from various pieces of research across South Africa prior to COVID-19 do not tell a compelling story of the potential of urban agriculture to address widespread food insecurity. Case studies have consistently shown limited impact on household food security status (but urban agriculture does increase dietary diversity). Additionally, in most cases the economic benefits accrued from sales of crops are limited, although some farmers are able to generate significant economic benefits.
Finally, despite the intended target of most urban agriculture projects being “the poorest of the poor”; most of the participants do not fall into this category. This is in part because the most vulnerable cannot afford inputs or the risk of crop failure, and are unable to access land.
Can this new wave of urban agriculture produce different outcomes? Can urban agriculture address food insecurity? Given the existing evidence and the breadth and depth of the problem, the answer is clearly no if we are expecting to address all food security.
No one, of course, expects it to solve food insecurity. Except, it does appear to be the sole entry point to addressing food insecurity of most provincial and local governments and civil society organisations.
Why is urban agriculture again being treated like a silver bullet to an immensely complex challenge? My sense is that it intuitively feels like the right thing and is viewed through an empowerment lens. And yet, food insecurity is the outcome of structural challenges in the food system and urban system of systemic marginalisation.
Expecting the urban poor, who have the least access to the resources necessary (money, land, tools, seed, knowledge and equipment) to establish and maintain successful agricultural ventures, to grow their own in order to uplift themselves out of poverty and food insecurity, fails to recognise the massive barriers constraining urban agriculture and the general lack of agency of the poor in South African cities.
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