“Everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food” is written in the South African constitution. But how is that implemented, and who is responsible for making that a reality? Scholar-activist Busiso Moyo grapples with what ‘a right to food’ actually looks like in practice. In our conversation, he shares why he sees 'right to food as a valuable framework to build a just food system. We also cover various aspects of power in the food system including: agenda setting power; power of corporations; the power of paradigms; and who has power along the value chain.
For more info and transcript, please visit: https://tabledebates.org/podcast/episode28
Busiso Moyo 00:00
We even speak about this idea of Food Systems Transformation. But, I always say that that's not a full sentence. I mean, has like, to transform to what end, you know, like food systems transformation to what end?
Samara Brock 00:18
Welcome to Feed a Food systems podcast presented by TABLE. I’m Samara Brock
Matthew Kessler 00:23
And I’m Matthew Kessler, and this week we speak with Busiso Moyo who called us from Johannesburg, South Africa.
Busiso Moyo 00:29
I consider myself an activist scholar, who is very much invested in Right to Food struggles, and you know, food justice. My background is in civil society, but I'm also an academic. And I've recently just wrapped up my doctoral studies with the School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape all the way in Cape Town.
“Everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food” is a sentence written in the South African constitution, but how is that implemented, and who is responsible for making that a reality? Busiso grapples with what ‘a right to food’ actually looks like in practice as he sees it as an important human rights framework to build a just food system.
Throughout our discussion, we cover various aspects of power including agenda setting power, power of corporations, the power of paradigms, the role of the state and who has power along the value chain.
As always, Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any comments, questions or suggestions for future guests.
And so as a short intro, can you describe how you developed your views on power in the food system?
Busiso Moyo 01:36
Yeah, well, I guess, you know, the question of power. I mean, there's a historical context that informs where South Africa finds itself so far as that interface with what the food system right because South Africa's food and agricultural systems were established under apartheid to serve a minority. And what we are grappling with today is that these food systems have largely remained untransformed. And as a result of that, they continue to serve some kind of minority, whatever their race be. You know, post 1994. So I think in terms of this, this idea of power and making sense of that particular space and sphere, it's about how do we bring about equitability, if that is a word in our food system in a way that government policies of liberalization and integration into the global political economy of things are confronted in a way that, is not necessarily regressive, but stays true to these bigger themes of redress and reform, that largely impacts how people experience and come to understand how the food system serves them.
So we're going to pick up on a lot of those different threads throughout this conversation, talking about history, talking about different ways to transform an untransformed system. And I'd like to first ask if you can explore the richness of the South African food system?
Busiso Moyo 03:19
The South African food system is bifurcated, so to speak. So we have a highly efficient, commercialized farming agriculture sector. And then we also have this food system that is anchored in rurality and peasant farming. So there's that dichotomy that speaks to a two economies approach, so to speak, in the sense that there are those who experienced the food system in South Africa in the same manner that someone in a first world country would experience the food system, and then there's those who experience the food system, in a manner that someone in a warzone probably would have to interact with the food system. So it's about straddling that reality, because we’re speaking of a food system that functions in a context of, you know, the biggest inequality in the world. And, you know, you have to understand that the biggest injustice then expresses itself in the food value chain.
We’ll get into the food value chain later in the chat. Busiso refers to a two economies approach. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki coined this term in reference to post-apartheid South Africa. There’s a rich economy and a poor economy. And growing the national economy at a quick rate would continue to improve the lives of those involved in the rich economy, but wouldn’t help the poor or the root causes of poverty. The divide isn’t entirely racialized, but there are racial elements to the division.
We asked Busiso how he thinks about tradeoffs between these two economies. He shared that it’s not so simple to address them.
Busiso Moyo 04:58
Ultimately, at the end of the day, we are still speaking about complexity. We speaking about a complex system. And as much as we speak of trade offs. Trade offs, towards what end, because I often say, you know, we even speak about this idea of Food Systems Transformation. But, I always say that that's not a full sentence. I mean, has like, to transform to what end, you know, like food systems transformation to what end? So with that in mind, I think for me, it's more about saying, “Look, we, we have a very efficient food system. In South Africa, however, it was designed to serve a minority.” And today, we are asking ourselves, right, you know, in a context of inequality, in a context of this particular history that we are still grappling with. What does the Right to Food mean? Right? What does it entail? So when we speak of trade offs, it's like what trade offs are needed to bring apart that commitment to this ethic to this human rights ethic to say, we have a food system that is not delivering. And what do we need to do in terms of advancing the to that space where it becomes a nourishing food system for all. And I think that's my investment in this topic. And yeah, ultimately, that conversation is not necessarily taking place in South Africa at the moment.
I want to dig in a little bit more to how you conceptualize power, can you define a little bit more about what power is and how it operates?
Busiso Moyo 06:34
Well, look, I mean, power in the food system is very mystic, alright, because these different types of power, right. And and all too often, when we speak about powering the food system, it's about discursive power. You know, it's about frames and ideas and the thinking and the agenda setting, you know, that type of power, and it's about who has influence there. And, and ultimately, I think, for me, then it's about demystifying that. And part of it is to say, look, let's just look at things at face value, because we don't want to be given to easy analysis. So you take a country like South Africa, which has this very strong human rights heritage. We look at constitutionalism and our socio economic jurisprudence, and then you say, “Okay, what is the track record there? And what are the potential leverage points that we can latch on to insofar as advancing this right to food story of ours?” So you look at the sort of collective action efforts that have brought about some type of dividends in terms of that constitutionalism and you look at the country's legal opportunity structure. So you look at the fact that there has been worthwhile litigation efforts on other socio economic rights like the right to housing, the right to education, the right to water, you name it. Across the board. But when it comes to food, there seems to be this absence of any sort of genuine commitment to challenging the status quo. And part of the challenge is we don't know what relief we're looking for.
Busiso talks about a lack of imagination in thinking about ways to deal with complexity. He opens up the conversation by asking, what vision would you share if you had the ear of the president.
If I had to give you the audience of the first citizen, the President himself, what would you want to tell him? So that is a challenge we're faced with in South Africa. But I think that's part of the problem and before we even get there, you then have to also ask yourself, what is the state's posture towards this issue? Right, so before we start lobbying, before we start the activism, what do we assume the state's understanding of this issue is.
Busiso points out that a lack of imagination is only part of the challenge. He also thinks about how to navigate the inequality seen across the public-private split in South Africa.
So we got public health care, private health care, public education, private education, public transport, there is this understanding that, we have to toe the line. But when it comes to the food system, my understanding is that the food system is just left to its own modalities, in a way that there does not seem to be any sort of impactful state intervention within food value chain, and how it is that the system is responding to those contexts of inequality. And I think therein, you know, is an opportunity for a conversation. How do we ensure that the system does not fail the poorest amongst us, which it’s currently doing?
You've spoken about the value chain. Can you talk about the different powerful actors that have more influence along it?
Busiso Moyo 10:01
There's a lot one can say on that topic. When we speak of the food value chain, right, there is this, there is a profound difference of opinion about how improved food security and livelihood outcomes will be best achieved, right. The South African experience, we have this concentration of ownership in the food system, whereby these corporations are able to put pressure on farmers to keep prices low, you know, and at the same time, they pass on any increased costs on to consumers, and so forth. And you find that the majority of workers, within that food value chain within these corporate value chains from the farm workers to the supermarket cashiers, they remain in very, like precarious jobs with very low pay. So what I'm saying is that we need to have build consensus around the role that these big corporations play because truth does they have a role to play.
Busiso says that business and corporations have a role to play and can be part of the solution, but he will consistently challenge them to commit to human rights principles. He is more concerned with the question - what does a public food system actually look like?
That's all we're getting at here in South Africa to say. If in light of this dichotomy, in light of this inequality, in light of the fact that, everything is bifurcated on this private public interface, all is well. Let's talk about the food system. What does a public food system look like? And that's what we're talking about when we speak about this idea of a right to food, what is the promise of the right to food? So that we can go beyond saying, I have a right to food. Now, let's be clear, what is the content of the right to food, such that when I am hungry, it's not a political statement. It's tangible. I know that I can go here and I can get some type of relief. Let's talk about food banks. Let's talk about food kitchens, not because we want to be a charity state, not because we want to burden the fiscus even more No, but to say, “how do we, as society carry this burden? How do we ensure that as businesses, as academia, as government, as civil society, we come together under this commitment of the right to food?”
Ultimately, it's about then who has convening power? Right, who has the power to convene? Does the government have that power? I don't know. Because there has been many windows of opportunity, where they could have convened and held the space for dialogue, and they've constantly chosen to play a blind eye. So once again, it's why do they choose that? Why are they you know shying away just from dialogue at the stage? Who's in charge of this agenda setting? Who has the ear of the state? What is the state craft that informs you know, the state's posture to this particular issue?
Can you talk a little bit about where you developed your ideas around right to food, to food justice?
Busiso Moyo 13:32
Wow. I don't know. I mean, look, here's the thing. I mean, obviously, there is, you know, one's own career trajectory, and how I've been fortunate enough, that my mind my sort of, like grooming and development and training, has been in tune with this right to food story. But I think ultimately, this for me as an African and I think as someone from the Global South, my investment in this right to food discourse is very simple. Oh, yes, that drawing back on this idea of an African perspective, you know, the poor will always be amongst us, at least that's what you know, the Bible says, But beyond that, it's about from an African perspective, it's like, we have the rich, and we have the poor amongst us, but what we don't have is hungry people. So the idea of having hungry people is very foreign. You know, you can have rich, you can have poor, but no one should go hungry amongst us. And you know, being being raised within that ethic, it became sort of like a natural passion project for me to be invested in right to food struggles. Initially, my sort of investment thematically was more land and agrarian reform. And a more and more that then translated to look, there’s this issue of the right to food. And there's something there. And over time, I think I have become more invested in just speaking to this idea of saying, look, what is the role of the state as the principal duty bearer? Okay, so if I am hungry, whose problem is that? Am I meant to go to government and say, feed me? As things stand I'm more invested now, in the realpolitik, that informs the space. Having just concluded my studies, you know, looking at the politics of malnutrition, I think I'm more inclined to say that, I don't think malnutrition in particular, is a clinical condition. I think it's a political outcome, you know, and then part of my investment now in the space, is to try to find spaces or to take up space in a way that amplifies that more and more.
The right to food can be a fairly abstract idea. Can you bring it down to the ground for us? What does it look like in practice, in the context that you have been researching? And in particular, how does it shift power in those areas?
Busiso Moyo 16:14
Yeah, that's that's, that's part of the joy, I guess, of my scholarship is that these are questions that I'm also still grappling with. The promise of the right to food is about an understanding that beyond anything else, this is about service to humanity. I don't want to sound a bit too philosophical and bit too abstract. But what we are talking about is just need all of us to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem and the need for systemic change. Part of why we are leaning on the right to food, at least I am, is that in South Africa, in particular, what you find is that there is this rhetoric that says South Africa's food secure at the national level. And for me, it's like that that is meaningless. Because when we're talking about the right to food, we're talking about people. And it's about people that need to eat.
Busiso says that there is a great opportunity created by the framework of the Right to Food. It’s a way to demand systemic change and invite a large group of stakeholders into the conversation.
How do we bring about equity, you know, in a way that speaks to this right to food to this commitment and this ethic that ultimately, we are feeding people, the food system must be responsive to the politics of place, it must be responsive to the climate, you know what I mean? If we are vulnerable to climatic conditions and factors, surely, you know what I mean, we need to stay in tune with this broader commitment to people.
I want to bring us back to discursive power, as you mentioned earlier, and I'm curious if you could share what are the paradigms that shape how we make sense of the food system, and how those understandings define or even limit how people in power think about problems and solutions.
Busiso Moyo 18:15
Paradigms, right. So now we're be talking about, well, I guess I could even call it policy paradigms. And I think it's very worthwhile to understand that there is a particular knowledge production agenda, so to speak, that seeks to capture or problematize the situation. And it's also a contested arena. And with that said, paradigms, we speaking about these a food justice constituency and ethic to this discussion, that is largely rooted, you know, within a North American discourse that revolves around race relations, and race concerns, and how that impacts in terms of the functioning and the modalities of the food system.
So, drawing back to your question about the paradigm. So, that's where we find ourselves is that there is this idea of a food justice ethic, that is very racialized, and it's something that is more dominant in the global north, and then there is this idea of food security, which has been the most dominant insofar as the history of this issue, and where we find ourselves in this moment in time. However, in light of some of the frustrations that have to do with the realpolitik of food systems transformations, many activists, and many activists scholars, are now of the opinion that food security as a concept has become something of diminishing value for justice projects.
If you’d like to read more about these terms, or as Busiso puts it, policy paradigms, you can check out TABLE’s explainers: What is food security and What is food sovereignty?
Of all the various food system paradigms, Busiso feels that the right to food has the most capacity to broaden our thinking about food system reform.
Food sovereignty still has its own limitations. And that, beyond, the appeal that comes with the this militancy and its commitment to radical reform and stuff, there is not much it offers beyond that political imagination in the political statement, that it it amplifies and articulates so well for reform and transformation. But it does not then once again, speak to this idea of alternatives and how best we can arrive at that.
So those are dominant paradigms that inform our understanding as we make sense of this. However, in an attempt not to be caught up in these silos and these sort of paradigms and ways of thinking, the right to food then enables us, to then have this broader commitment to a human rights based framework, and it becomes an umbrella of all these terms. So regardless of whether your motivations are race, or you want reform, or you want to confront super predatory capitalism, in the food system, whatever it is, let's bring all of these under this banner of Right to Food, let's hold the space. And let's speak about what the right to food agenda can look like that permeates because we know that this food issue is multipronged.
And where does Busiso see decolonialization sit amongst these paradigms?
Busiso Moyo 21:48
There's a lot to say, you know, around a decolonial agenda, and I think, perhaps, at face value, I think for me, it's about what is Africa's food history. All right, where are we coming from, where are we finding ourselves now, and what needs to change? The food system in particular is not broken, so even when we speak about decolonizing the food system, the food system functions as intended to. All right, and that is the reality of it. So part of that is me being sympathetic to the fact that there is no such thing as a decolonial agenda to food systems. However we could pay attention to some of the injustices that are taking place slowly but surely such as issues around land grab, seed patents and a little bit of zoning in this multinational corporation footprint. But all of this is as a result of the fact that the food system or the African food system is pretty much disadvantaged in that it's up for grabs. And we find ourselves at a space where I did not even know if we can speak boldly about a decolonial agenda to African food systems. I think that becomes a question of taking on the Empire. And, and that is a whole nother conversation of its own. Yeah.
Thanks so much, you've covered a lot of territory. And I just have one last question for you. So I just read your co authored article about using Afrofuturism in high level visioning processes like the IPCC as a way to reimagine the Anthropocene.
For those unfamiliar, Afrofuturism is any style of art - books, music, comics - that combines science fiction elements with ideas from the history of Africa and the African people. It’s steeped in African traditions and Black identity to tell stories about an imagined future.
How can Afrofuturism expand our imaginations of the future food system?
Busiso Moyo 23:56
Well, I like that question because something that I'm grappling with is what does the Right to Food mean for the Anthropocene? Because more than that, it's about regardless of what food future we imagine, it will still be underpinned by some type of social contract. And for me that I think that is the lens that is currently missing in terms of Futurism and Afro futurism studies and more so than to proceed to say more and more, we are in tune that the future is on its way, and we're anticipating it more and more, we're talking about the fact that, you know, human activity has a biggest footprint now. But beyond that, we're still not talking about that gray matter in between, because we want to treat this as futurism rhetorically as though it's black and white. It's not, it's about how do we still arrive at that place where the social compact speaks to the real politic of the day. Whatever that may be, because history has not finished. And part of this yeah, the storytelling is that we lack an imagination for justice once again. So we want to speak of this utopian society. There's a roadmap that can get us there. And let's be true and honest. And let's embrace the discomfort as well, that comes with it. And I think that's what's currently missing. So for me, it's about what does the right to food entail? the Human Rights lingo, human rights framework. And this also speaks to third world approaches to international law, because we still have a lot of grievances at this end of the world and now we're talking a Futurism and I'm saying let's talk about a true and genuine justice ethic that will get us there, because at the end of the day, we are all there and just sort of like engaged in some sort of wishful thinking outside of that.
Busiso Moyo. Scholar activist. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Busiso Moyo 26:12
Thanks again for the opportunity folks, I really appreciate it.
That wraps another episode of the Feed podcast. A big thank you to Busiso Moyo for joining us and to you for listening.
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This episode was edited and mixed by Matthew Kessler and Jackie Turner. Music in this episode by Blue dot Sessions. Stay tuned for a new episode on power in a couple weeks.