Imagine a country defined by deep inequalities that determine how the population live – right down to what they eat. One section of society has easy access to fresh local produce that is organically grown, diverse, and nutritious. The other half largely turn to ultra-processed food produced on a mass scale thousands of miles away.
For many people across the world, this basic description will be familiar. And yet, depending on where they are, the particular countries and dynamics being imagined may be entirely different.
Readers in the West will probably read the above depiction and picture poor sections of society relying on cheap junk food and wishing they could enjoy – and afford – organic produce like their middle-class compatriots. Readers in Africa will likely imagine the complete opposite: poor communities eating low-cost local veg while fantasising about trying the kinds of processed imports that have become associated with high status.
This distinction speaks to the paradox at the heart of the global food system and its impact in Africa. Across the continent, many communities primarily eat nutritious fruit and veg that has been grown locally, affordably, and using agroecological methods free of synthetic inputs. Not only is this exactly the kind of produce the Global North’s middle-classes crave and pay a premium for; it is precisely what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests is necessary to combat climate change. As its extensive Sixth Assessment Report in 2022 put it: “Meeting the increasing needs of the human population for food and fibre production requires transformation in management regimes to recognise dependencies on local healthy ecosystems, with greater sustainability, including through increased use of agroecological farming approaches.”
And yet, despite all this, Africa is being pushed to adopt a Western model based on mass industrial agriculture, fossil-fuel-based inputs, and ultra-processed foods. In cities across the continent, malls are becoming dominated by fast food outlets catering to aspirational middle-classes. Supermarket shelves are being filled with wheat-based products, poultry, and sweets from Europe, the US, and China. And external actors – from foreign governments and multi-billion-dollar agri-giants to NGOs – are insisting that the Western approach to agriculture is the only viable way.
America’s food apartheid
The potentially disastrous outcomes of this model can be seen across the West, but most starkly in the US. In the richest country in the world, 42% of adults are affected by obesity and 10.5% are food insecure. 19 million people – over 6% of the population – live in so-called “food deserts” in which access to grocery stores is severely limited. Many more live in “food swamps”, areas dominated by junk food and soft drinks. It is little wonder consumers dream being able to access local nutritious produce.
And it is not just people’s health and nutrition that suffers. Agriculture in the US is responsible for 11% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. It has been seen to cause local environmental degradation. Furthermore, this whole food system – from seeds to supermarkets – is dominated by just a handful of enormous corporations with huge political influence.
In 2021, researchers at the Rockefeller Foundation tried to calculate the costs of this food system in the US. The first figure they came up with was $1.1 trillion/yr. This is the amount consumers spent on food in 2019, including the costs of production, processing, retailing, and wholesaling. Next, however, they added various invisible costs: healthcare for millions who fall ill with diet-related diseases; industrial agricultures’ contribution to pollution and biodiversity loss; the effect of greenhouse gas emissions. Including these costs, researchers arrived at a figure three times bigger. They estimated the “true cost of food in the US” to be $3.2 trillion/yr, most of which comes not from the food itself but the food system’s destructive side-effects.
It should be added that these costs fall disproportionately on poor people and people of colour. These groups are more likely to suffer diet-related diseases, be negatively affected by environmental degradation, and work in low-wage food production jobs. Some campaigners suggest “food apartheid” better describes the environment in the US than “food deserts”.
Who’s really backwards?
Despite the problems associated with this model, we have increasingly seen similar dynamics emerge in Africa – albeit starting with the middle-classes for whom Western lifestyles are seen as desirable. In South Africa, for instance, over 28% of adults are now obese, and the healthcare system spends an estimated 15% of its expenditure on related illnesses. In North Africa, the problem is as bad if not worse. And elsewhere on the continent, the growing prevalence of processed food is driving similar patterns in towns and cities. At the same time, African governments are being pushed to “modernise” their agricultural systems. This means more industrialisation, monocropping, and heavy use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.
Africans have long been told that their farming methods are backwards and should be abandoned in favour of Western wisdom. We know where this leads. Although industrial agriculture may have succeeded in feeding growing populations in the short-term, it has proven itself to be environmentally unsustainable and ultimately damaging to human health, economic justice, and the climate in the long-term.
It has also been tried in Africa. In 2006, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was founded with the goal of bringing high-yield agricultural practices to 30 million farmers. The powerful coalition, heavily backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, vowed to halve food insecurity and double crop productivity by 2020. It disbursed $500 million in grants, while national governments heartily supported its vision, spending $1 billion/yr on programmes subsidising the purchase of commercial seeds and fertilisers.
Yet when AGRA’s own deadline arrived, it declined to share its data and quietly deleted its goals from its website with no explanation. Researchers who nonetheless tried to assess its impact found disappointing results. A report by Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute found that staple crop yields grew by just 18% over 12 years in AGRA target countries – compared to 17% in the previous period – while undernourishment increased by 30%. Analysis by African and German civil society groups reached similar findings, also noting that AGRA programmes had driven land use away from more nutritious and climate-resilient crops and undermined farmers’ sovereignty.