World Food Day: where’s the ‘sweet spot’ for sugar and climate change?

Published on 14 October 2016

As this year’s World Food Day calls for food and agriculture systems to adapt to the rapidly changing climate, what are the competing tensions at play? The recently published special issue, in Journal of Southern African Studies, on the political economy of sugar in southern Africa, puts a lens on the challenges faced by governments and local communities to respond to climate change.

Guest edited by IDS Research Fellow Ian Scoones, Philip Woodhouse at the University of Manchester and Alex Dubb at the Institute for Poverty Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), the special issue highlights the contradictory forces at work in African agriculture.

Why sugar?

As the special issue shows, the rapid growth of sugar production in the last 20 years is a manifestation of many interests which reflect the historical and economic context of the different countries in southern Africa, as well as their contemporary political and economic dynamics. It is a region where food production is vulnerable to drought, large-scale corporate control of land and water to produce a crop whose consumption is increasingly criticised on health grounds.

Yet, as Philip Woodhouse, Professor at the University of Manchester and co-editor of the special issue explains, ‘the sugar industry offers to many African governments a tangible opportunity to develop modern agriculture and sophisticated industrial processing to deliver globally competitive products such as sugar and ethanol.

However, evidence from these studies questions the modernity and productivity credentials of sugar production in southern Africa, as elsewhere, not least in some of its labour practices. Against a shifting backdrop of international markets and corporate investment in agriculture, stability may seem a problematic concept.

This year’s drought, and the prospect of changing rainfall patterns associated with climate change suggest this trade-off may need further scrutiny. Sugar cane is a highly water-intensive crop requiring ten months or more of growth before harvest. Even if food is to be imported with cash earned from sugar exports, it is likely to be a very inefficient use of water if irrigation is to underpin the region’s food security’.

Food price volatility has resulted in lasting changes in the relationships between people and food

Evidently, sugar production in southern Africa shines a light on the most notable challenges in shaping food and agricultural systems, particularly corporate interests and government regulation.

These challenges are not exclusive to southern Africa, nor are they exclusive to climate change and sugar, when it comes to food and agriculture security, the global economy is also major player.

A recent Oxfam/IDS report, entitled Precarious Lives: Food, Work and Care After the Global Food Crisis tracked the impacts the 2007-2011 global food crisis in ten countries over a period of four years, and found that the price spikes was undoubtedly experienced as a crisis by many people who were already spending half or more of their earnings on food. Researchers observed rapid changes in people’s eating habits and – alongside accelerated urbanisation – a move to more dangerous, demeaning and insecure jobs as people worked longer hours to raise the cash needed to put food on the table.

As people worked harder and longer, and migrated to towns, other regions or countries to find work, more turned to heavily-marketed convenience fast food, particularly unhealthy processed items with high fat/sugar/salt content – a more ‘Westernised’ diet.

Food insecurity as an equality, rights and social justice issue

Going beyond the climate and global market challenges is also important. As it stands, women and girls are still disproportionately affected by hunger and malnutrition. The BRIDGE Development and Gender Network argue that reversing this trend must be a top priority for governments and international institutions. They continue to highlight in their Cutting Edge pack that food and nutrition insecurity is a political and economic phenomenon fuelled by inequitable global and national processes.

Addressing these issues can only come from lessons, and the championing of leaders in their countries to drive change. The Transform Nutrition Consortium have recently launched the Stories of Change in Nutrition focusing on Bangladesh, Nepal, Odisha (India), Ethiopia, Senegal and Zambia. These ‘stories’ aim to improve our understanding of what works in reducing undernutrition, and how policy and implementation processes can be cultivated and sustained to improve nutrition. Transform Nutrition argue that this approach should underpin efforts to improve food and nutrition security.

Is it possible to eat food that is both nutritious and locally-grown?

In the UK, the recent dispute over food prices between its largest supermarket chain, Tesco, and its biggest food and grocery manufacturer, Unilever, shines a light on a deeper problem in the global food system: our reliance on food that is grown elsewhere. This is compounded by a healthy foods literature and culture which focuses on imports such as avocados and coconuts as the means by which to eat nutritiously, and an agriculture policy which focuses on exports rather than linking farming to feeding our own population.

Elise Wach, whose work is focused on agroecological food systems, reviews some of the current barriers which are preventing us from eating affordable, nutritious and locally produced foods. She argues that both farmers and consumers need to be brought together discuss and debate what an agroecological food system might look like at a local and national level. It entails building on people’s own knowledge while also presenting them with information that may challenge their perceptions.

One of the most important aspects is that the process includes a focus on the potentials (notice the plural of that word) for things to be different. It entails thinking both about the implications of our current food systems as well as the type of food systems we want to be creating for our future generations.

Join the Transform Nutrition high level panel in Canucun, Mexico at the Micronutrient Forum on Sunday 23 October to discuss the Stories of Change in Nutrition project. 

Key contacts

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Vivienne Benson

Communications and Impact Manager


+44 (0)1273 915653


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