Family farming vs the killer foods

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Date: Nov. 11, 2011
Publisher: Independent Online
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,332 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1380L

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It's not scientific. It cannot feed the world. The pests will destroy it.

That's what I heard from the "experts" when I joined the work to revive family farming in South Africa, in Soweto in the early 1980s.

The neo-liberals say that ambition and greed are the driving force behind progress, harnessed for the good by competitive debt-capital that generates trickledown to feed the world. But this is no longer true, if it ever was.

Firstly, the debt-driven economy is shedding more jobs than it creates, despite often healthy gross domestic product. This is not changing. Secondly, there is a fundamental insight without which no new way is possible: people at heart are NOT greedy and competitive. Original economic impulses are actually driven by a desire for the good (the source of ethics), not greed. Otherwise there would be no loved children and caring families, no kindness or giving. The desire to develop culture drives us, not survival.

With ethical leadership, and very modest all-round assistance - at a cost of no more than R100 per micro-farmer per month - it is now possible to produce hundreds, thousands, millions, of food-secure households, and thousands of self-help jobs worth R1 000-R3 000 a month, after costs. All on pieces of wasteland no bigger than a classroom, 100m2 - or five classrooms, 500m2.

Everyone needs to eat.

All modern human culture grows around food consumption and production for the good of all. Agri-Culture.

There are about five million taxpayers in South Africa with regular incomes. They mostly buy cold-chain food, gassed-for-longevity, agri-poisoned and increasingly infected with genetically modified material. This killer food, more often than not, has been transported over hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres, at huge energy and climate change cost, to supermarkets.

What if we offer the same taxpayers the chance to collect international quality, un-poisoned, same- day harvested, super-fresh and healthy seasonal food at a good price? And what if we show that, along with ensuring unlimited sustainable jobs for local family farmers, this purchase directly enables community-based nature conservation and climate change mitigation, while diminishing individual carbon footprint by at least 50 percent?

This is possible because family farming is just as productive as, and 250 percent more energy efficient than, agri-industrial food systems, which actually cause over 40 percent of carbon pollution. A recent 30-year study by the Rodale Institute, among other studies, proves this.

Agri-Culture, for the good of all, will surely get easier to sell as time goes on because "the markets" (that is human beings) largely want to get off the stupid and destructive path we are currently on.

So, how is it done? It's not all that complicated in practice.

Buy all your fresh food from local family farmers. Invest directly in local family farmers and pay them a fair price. The super fresh produce makes you jump for joy, and they get enough cash to develop and send their kids to school. The "middlemen", like the for-max-profit "food futures" traders who drive the new food-war economy, by dictating via investments who eats and who does not, are smart and well-resourced enough to adjust and find other things to sell.

The problem is that family farmers are few in South Africa. Family farmers are not widely honoured and don't get access to finance and support the way big agri-industry farmers do. They can't grow huge market volumes alone and cannot easily sustain all the work to create and supply a market.

This is where the all-important "new secret ingredient" changes the 'failure game': a modest and sustained subsidised support package (R100 per month per family farmer), supplied by honest agencies, that enable family farmers to access bulk farming inputs cheaply, get training, advice and mentorship according to their level of farming development, obtain monitoring and assessment assistance, and obtain guaranteed access to fair-pay (short value chain) neighbourhood markets via a local pack-shed, or farmers market.

A Universal Income Grant would help too.

I hear someone ask - "subsidy"? "Universal Income Grant"? Surely this is unsustainable?"

But this objection is blind. Remember that the world banking system has been subsidised to the tune of trillions, with more to come. Remember that American, EU and Chinese agri-business is subsidised in billions of dollars and euros, though many of their farmers are in debt to their eyeballs. All that cheap imported food in our supermarkets comes from somewhere.

One of South Africa's best exports are farmers who have left South Africa for countries where they are given subsidised support packages, while here in South Africa good money is thrown after bad by opening doors to subsidised food imports and exports and into our ever failing land reform programme.

We are, of course, also throwing good money after bad by energetically enabling genetically modified foods (GMOs) to be grown on a massive scale by a desperate and shrinking group of self-enriching debt-burdened agri-industrial farmers.

This doubtful crop is then forced down all our throats and particularly down the throats of the poor, via cheap (subsidised) bread, maize and soya meal, and via animal feed.

So why quibble about a measly R100 per farmer per month to create un-poisoned, non GMO, healthy food and livelihoods for millions?

Until we are prepared to pay the true cost of good (and bad) food, subsidies will be needed to produce food. But subsidies can be used to make a genuinely positive and self-help oriented difference.

And that is precisely why I write this next economy article, as invited by SANE, because this simple solution has been modelled and tested among the "unemployable", in Cape Town, and is ready to be rolled out in every village, town and city - anywhere communities eat fresh food.

Through Abalimi, established in 1982, the unemployed become productive micro-farmers, feeding thousands at very low cost and creating hundreds of jobs, off tiny scraps of urban wasteland. The model is ready to be copied nationally.

Around 2 500 family micro-farmers directly feed a minimum of 15 000 family members every year, off home plots. This home garden movement is the foundation of a thriving emergent community garden movement, involving another 500 family micro-farmers in about 100 community gardens. Of these, nearly 100 family micro-farmers in 20-30 community gardens are involved (since launch of the marketing scheme in 2008) in producing for the market to create permanent self-help jobs. All costing less than R100 per micro-farmer per month, or R20 per family member per month, to keep the whole show on the road.

Money has started to flow: a modest R280 000 last year, but increasing fast, into the hands of scores of previously unemployed micro-farmers, and it keeps coming!

Thousands in Cape Town already eat the freshest, most nutritious, un-poisoned food on earth, grown abundantly on little patches of wasteland. They eat better quality than most of the "rich" who go to upmarket stores. Family farmers often assert that they have become healthy, positive and productive.

Thousands of family micro-farmers collaborate peacefully and help each other to feed uncounted sick and poor from their gardens.

Put a price on this and tell me if the "short value chain seed to table" movement does not have the real practical potential to overcome poverty and provide innumerable jobs.

l To collect a box of same-day harvest, seasonal, un-poisoned vegetables in Cape Town, sign up at

To find out how to set up your own "seed to table" seasonal vegetable system in any village, town, city, send an enquiry to

To find out more about Abalimi Bezekhaya, visit

l Small is a family micro-farming practitioner and co-director of Abalimi Bezekhaya (farmers of home) and Harvest of Hope vegetable box scheme in Cape Town. This article is part of the National Dialogue Initiative launched by the Ministry of Economic Development in association with the Cape Times and the SA New Economics network. Earlier contributions can be found at Contributions not exceeding 1 600 words can be emailed to

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A272264363