Conscious consumers are the key drivers of change

In 2018, Sir David Attenborough told the United Nations Climate Summit in Katowice, Poland that the collapse of civilisation and the natural world is on the horizon. ‘Right now, we’re facing a man-made disaster of global scale,’ Attenborough told delegates from almost 200 nations. ‘Our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change.’

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issues serial reports, often dubbed the ‘gold standard’ of climate research; the most recent of which says that if the entire spectrum of food production is factored in— from growing crops to transportation and packaging —food production potentially contributes to as much as 37 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

So better land use, less meat-intensive diets and reducing food waste should be global priorities, crucial to the immediate, all-out effort needed to forestall a climate catastrophe.

‘High-input, resource-intensive farming systems, which have caused massive deforestation, water scarcities, soil depletion and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, cannot deliver sustainable food and agricultural production,’ The Future of Food and Agriculture: Trends and Challenges, FAO 2017

Climate change Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

Conscious consumers hold businesses accountable by questioning business motives, the authenticity of catchy slogans, deceptive ingredient labelling and sustainable claims to push for traceable transparency in our food chain

Climate change

While global climate change is a force out of the control of the most impacted by it, the marginalised and subsistence farmers, the IPCC and other researchers have also predicted that agriculture in southern Africa will be especially severely affected by climate change; with agricultural systems that remain largely rain-fed.

‘..where you are talking about one billion people hungry, two billion food insecure, and over 2 billion obese, I mean you are talking about a food system that is if you like, highly destructive. It is what some of us would call ‘ecocidal’. It is ecocidal in two senses, one it is destroying human life as it is an extremely unhealthy anti-people food system. On the other hand, it is ecocidal in how it relates to ecosystems.’ Dr Vishwas Satgar from COPAC, Statement in The South African Human Rights Commission. The Right To Access To Nutritious Food In South Africa 2016 – 2017

New way of thinking

But a greater understanding of the balance between nature and biodiversity and how intrinsically linked they are to the production of food gives us hope. We require a new way of thinking about how our food is produced, processed, packaged and accessed.

This improved consciousness will help us better understand and advocate for authentic solutions to reduce our ecological footprint, which is going to become increasingly important as the problems related to inequality, poverty and populations increase.

This is where the role of the conscious consumer becomes key -as they hold businesses accountable by questioning business motives, the authenticity of catchy slogans, deceptive ingredient labelling and sustainable claims to push for traceable transparency in our food chain.

Small-scale food production is not only important to sustainable development, it is also one of the only sources of livelihood for a lot of the rural communities in South Africa. As such, the food choices consumers make directly influence the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and their communities as well as the nutritional food security in our country. Now more than ever, the importance of eating seasonal produce and supporting local production systems that implement regenerative practices to control soil erosion, promote the conservation of water and enhance biodiversity; along with incorporating methods to enhance soil carbon, health and reduce soil degradation, is critical.

The current and future impact of our food system therefore relies on the choices we make today. Every time a consumer makes a food choice it is an endorsement of the way in which that food item was produced. We may be aware that we vote with our wallets but the majority of consumers do not know where their food comes from or how it is produced, often relying on misleading advertising and labelling to make choices.

South African consumers need to send a clear message that they care about who is producing their food and that they want to know where it’s coming from and how it’s made. They also need to move beyond the “feel good” vibe or personal health motivation.

This is about being part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Here are some other meaningful ways for consumers to exercise their power within the food system to amplify change for the better:

  • Inform yourselves as to the most important food-related climate and social justice issues in South Africa.
  • The biggest thing we all can do as consumers is to ask tough questions. We need to see companies reporting on impact and not merely saying they have a program.
  • Advocate for government to place political will behind agroecology.
  • Insist on traceable transparency in our food chain to allow for informed choice.
  • Insist on transparent standards to any ethical or sustainable claim.
  • Help support progressive programmes that promote sustainability-minded collective action.
  • Support local small-scale farmer food distribution initiatives but ask for proof of any sustainable or ethical claims being made.
  • Support restaurants that are sustainably aware and offering more sustainably produced food transparently and authentically.
  • Pay active attention to farms and restaurants who have been recognised as leaders in the sustainable sourcing, cooking and dining industry such as winners of the Eat Out Woolworths Sustainability Award announced annually at the Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards.

‘Nothing short of a global transformation of the food system will be needed to stand any chance of reaching all 17 SDGs. In short, if we get it right with food, we get it right with everything else’ Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and professor of environmental science at Stockholm University.


  • IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform On Biodiversity And Ecosystem Services) Global Assessment Report On Biodiversity And Ecosystem Services. A 40-Page “Summary For Policy Makers” Released May 6 in Paris.

  • The South African Human Rights Commission. The Right To Access To Nutritious Food In South Africa 2016 – 2017
  • The International Panel of Experts on sustainable food systems (iPES Food) advocates for agro-ecology to be adopted globally by governments.

  • IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C

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