South Africa’s food supply is highly industrialised dominated by capital intensive production systems and big agribusinesses. The Agro-industrialisation of the country’s food economy has occurred at all levels of the value chain, characterised by:
- consolidated production systems
- privatisation and an increasingly concentrated wholesaling system
- integration of the processing sector
- increased concentration in the retail sector.
About 99% of the food is produced by 3% of the farmers and distributed by four retail chains which control 55% of the food retail industry.
Alternative foods systems
In the past decade alternative food production systems such as organic, free range, fair trade, sustainable production, agro-ecology, bio-dynamics, permaculture or natural production among many others have emerged in the agricultural economy — largely driven by changes in lifestyle and increased role of consumer ethics in food markets. The demand for natural foods has taken centre stage in the food economy. Climate change and the global food and energy crisis have also put a bigger spotlight on the need for sustainable food production and consumption systems
The market share of these alternative foods in South Africa has not been measured; this food meta-category is marred by many overlaps and permutations across different sub-categories including among them indigenous, traditional, sustainable and organic foods. So, while there are multiple categories of alternative food production systems, definitions are 'mobile', not always clear to consumers, and very often poorly regulated. Organic food has gained ground over other alternative systems but not all consumers are clear on the difference, for example, between organic and free range (all organic animals are free-range, but not all free-range animals are necessarily organic) or between grain-fed and grass-fed/ pasture-raised animals (grass-fed animals live in pastures rather than feedlots and are likely raised without the use of antibiotics and hormones).
The era of organic foods
Among all the alternative food systems, organic food receives widespread attention among academic, development practitioners and policy makers. The organic movement is gaining momentum in South Africa as seen by the increased availability of natural, organic and free range products in supermarkets. Woolworths and Pick 'n pay are pioneers in this field — responsible for introducing first free range eggs in 1991 and organic broiler meat in 2007. Besides supermarkets, weekend markets also known as farmers’ markets are mushrooming in affluent suburbs, especially in Gauteng and the Western Cape.
Government policy is not yet pro-organic, there is a draft policy on organic products and some related pieces of legislation which shape the organic industry. However, policymakers seem to prefer promoting GMOs over organic. DAFF officials say that South Africa needs artificial assistance to grow crops, because the country does not have ideal growing conditions. According to Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) (2012) only 13% of the land offers ideal growing conditions, so it promotes synthetic inputs and modified crops. The global food system also does not seem friendly to the organic, as one World Bank Report (WDR 2008) suggested that the only way to maximise food production was to increase industrial food production characterised by use of synthetic chemicals and engineered animals and crops.
Opportunities for smallholder farmers
Some organisations tip organic production as a solution to smallholder agrarian challenges which emanate from increased input costs and inaccessible markets. They aim to reduce poverty among Southern Africa's rural communities by introducing organic farming, better nutrition, and agro-enterprise development despite two potential challenges standing in the way:
- The cost of certification by third parties acts as a barrier to small farmers' entry into the organic industry: the process is too bureaucratic, lengthy and costly (around R3000/year).
- Organic production is too costly and risky to grow as it does not use risk mitigation technologies (genetically modified engineered seeds, fertilisers and chemicals). This means more land and labour resources are needed to achieve productivity levels on par with large-scale industrial farms.
Given these dynamics the jury is still out whether organic foods can address market access challenges faced smallholder farmers. The organic food system is also split between two opposing trends: pro-poor initiatives on the one hand, and pro-elite initiatives on the other. Switching to organic production is not a proven livelihood strategy for smallholder agriculture in South Africa, although those who support organic production among smallholder farmers argue that it benefits society as a whole much more, because it reduces the ecological damage caused by industrialised agriculture, and poses less health risks (some argue that GMO is highly risky to population health). Supporters of organic farming also believe it will free smallholder farmers from the enormous power of capital-driven, industrial agribusiness.
The argument against organic foods comes from both the commercial sector and the grassroots movement:
- Agribusiness practitioners dismiss the capacity of organic to deliver enough cheap food to the global population (which is highly urbanising). They argue that the organic production will reverse the gains made on global food security made possible by advanced science and technology.
- Meanwhile, some grassroots activists attack the current organic industry which has become capital intensive (requiring investment for licensing) thereby replicating models of conventional industrial production, where power is vested with the big agribusiness at the expense of small business and farmers alike.
In South Africa, these debates are taking place alongside other aspects of agrarian reform, such as land reform, spatial reconfiguration, and black economic empowerment. Current government policies and programs targeting smallholder farmers are biased toward integrating smallholder farmers into the industrial food production systems, with little or no direction regarding alternative food systems, such as organic and free range. The dynamics of contestation between organic and industrial production for the food economy is likely to be with us for a very long time. Without clear empirical research and evidence, the debate will remain misted in rhetoric, which is unlikely to shift the policy terrain in either direction.
 Agricultural Pests Act (1983) and the Agricultural Products Standards Act (1990), Consumer Protection Act (2011)