Articles, Essays and Opinion Pieces

Finding a way forward for the South African food system: Lessons from the Paris Agricultural Show

by Prof. Julian May, Director: NRF-DST Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape

11 March 2019

The 55th Salon International de l’Agriculture/Paris International Agricultural Show opened on 23 February 2019.  It is one of the largest and most important agricultural and food exhibitions in the world. Comprising 7 halls with more than 1000 exhibitors that range from displays of large-scale precision agriculture to artisanal bakers.  Often named the “largest farm in France”, it attracts over 700 000 visitors during its annual 10 day season. Although some wear “Food Professional” badges, the majority of visitors are not specialists. They are ordinary people from all over the country, as well as Parisians, who travel out to the Paris Expo.  The weekends bring families, and during the week, teachers supervise groups of school children through the many educational stands.

The Salon is striking in its diversity.  There is substantial representation from large-scale agro-industry and the research and financial institutions that support this sector.  Here the emphasis is on the role played by science in the production of food, from seed to waste disposal.  Behind the arrays of costly devices, displays show pristine farms and factories, usually with little human presence, and well dressed families preparing flawless salads.

However it is also possible to find the stand of the Confederation Paysanne, a trade union that is engaged with peasants (“paysan”), social movement actors and supports family agriculture.  Opposite this stand, Terre de Liens is an associative network that assists paysan gain access to land by providing a solidarity investment company that allows the public to invest in rural projects with a high social and ecological value.  Capital is raised from bequests and donations to purchase farms for diversified agri-rural activities.

These are rented to farmers engaged in local, organic and human-scale farming. Terre de Liens describes their mission as promoting agricultural succession and facilitating intergenerational transmission of regenerative agricultural practices by installing new farmers. Both organisations confirm that in France, “paysan” does not necessarily have a pejorative connotation. Instead the concept is related to the “…emergence of other possible worlds” that honours those who work within this sector and could contribute to save the planet with alternative farming techniques.

All manner of artisanal production can be found dedicated to French regional food as well as agricultural products of the rest of the world; notably from French speaking Africa.  A section displays the food of the overseas French territories, where the mood is decidedly upbeat. Stands display many types of rum, others offer rain forest fruit ice cream, while vanilla givre (when the vanillin content is so high the vanilla pod grows crystal filaments) competes with saffron to be the world’s most expensive spice.

Outside the show, a small group of protesters are condemning the raising of animals for the consumption of their meat while inside a debate on the same topic is taking place, while the magnificent Aubrac cattle are being judged.

The embrace of food and of the systems that produce, process and distribute food gives this event an energy seldom seen in similar events in South Africa. Yet, agriculture is not more important in France than in South Africa: around 1.5% of the GDP (3.5% with the agro-industries). Some of this is due to the specific interest that French have for quality products related to a “terroir”, a geographical origin. It shapes a specifically French approach to agriculture and food.  Rather than being organised into ‘supply chains’ focusing on the final product, the Salon approaches the food system as being be organised into filière: the actors, institutions and activities that are logically connected in order to contribute towards the production of the final items that are consumed.  Further, rather than being located on farms, villages or regions, the food system takes place in territories: dynamic spaces within which economic, political and social agents negotiate products and services.

As has been tradition since 1964, President Macron addressed the Salon, pledging to protect farming standards and culinary traditions that are threatened practices that see food as a “product like any other.” He also mentioned opportunities for greater food system transparency through the use of Blockchain, and promoted a ‘flexitarian’ diet. The speech by the French President is always an important signal for the agri-food sector whose reaction can be bruising.  When he last spoke at the Salon in 2018, Macron was booed, while the altercation between President Sarkozy and a visitor is still raised by the media each year.

The interest of the public, and the respect shown to those involved in this process of food production is also striking.  It reinforces the tragedy of South Africa in which the future of the food system remains bound up our unresolved land issue. Rural areas remain sites of sometimes violent contestation. Here the producers of our food remain incriminated by the legacy of the colonial and apartheid eras’ dispossession of land however they themselves obtained the land. The actions of those that attempt to promote the transformation of the agricultural sector are drowned out by the brutal actions of others.

Producer markets in urban areas remain as segregated as they were during these years. As an example, one market in central Cape Town sells locally produced charcuterie to an affluent and largely white group of customers, while around the mountain and a twenty-minute drive, another sells similar products in the form of walkie-talkies and chicken feet to a poorer and exclusively black group of customers. In contrast the stalls of
tête de veau (calf head) and andouillette (intestine sausage) are among the most popular at the Salon.

Despite the mention of land reform and improving the agricultural sector featured in both President Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) and Minister Mboweni’s Budget vote speech, neither touched on how this dismal legacy is to be addressed.  Emphasis was placed on improving production systems and supporting small-scale producers. However there was no mention of the importance of a broader transformation of South Africa’s food system.  There was no mention of the agrarian reforms that are needed to develop both the farming sector and the small towns that used to service it.  And the food system continued to be depicted as ending with the production of food, rather than seeing this as just the beginning of the process that ultimately must ensure the nourishment of the nation and the regeneration of our countryside.

South Africa can learn from the energy that is represented at the Salon.  The active engagement of the farming sector and the citizens who rely upon it for their nutrition has provided an opportunity to demand political commitment.  At the Salon, politicians are annually called to account for the food system, and this year, President Macron, mindful of the “yellow vests” who have been protesting since November 2018, spent a record 14 hours at the event.


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