On community, soil and agency: cultivating sustainable food systems

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Written by Francis Thorold, a freelance writer, systems thinker and PGDip Sustainable Development student

Creating socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems is a complex challenge without simple answers. However, we can start by understanding what makes our current paradigm unsustainable and exploring alternative approaches like regenerative farming. By expanding our imaginations and embracing new possibilities, we can work towards achieving a new mode of development that promotes the coexistence of people and the planet in a net-zero, sustainable way.

Moving beyond economic growth

To achieve long-term sustainability, we must shift our focus away from GDP, economic growth, and monetary wealth as the sole measures of development. Instead, we should consider human well-being and empowerment as crucial factors, providing people with the ability to access and utilise resources. Rapper, educator, and activist Akala reminds us that money is merely a means to wealth, not wealth itself. To create a socially just and ecologically sustainable world, we need to go beyond critiquing and reforming unjust systems. We must actively cultivate transitions towards more sustainable alternatives. This involves transforming global economic systems to ensure equitable access to resources and opportunities for holistic well-being, while also preserving and restoring our ecosystems.

All of this begins at a much smaller scale. The economy is the result of many individual actions that shape how people, ecosystems, resources, and institutions interact with each other. Our ability to make things happen doesn’t only depend on us as individuals; it also comes from our unique abilities to use resources and affect interactions through our networks and relationships. Together, we work towards achieving collectively agreed-upon outcomes.

The challenge of food security in South Africa

Food security is a pressing issue in South Africa. Statistics show that a significant number of people, particularly in marginalized communities, experience hunger and inadequate food access. Children under the age of five are especially vulnerable, and malnutrition during early childhood can have long-lasting effects on their health and development.

Achieving food security is not just essential for sustainable development, but it is also a goal outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Living Soils: A holistic approach to sustainable agriculture and food security

The Living Soils Community Learning Farm, located in Lynedoch, Stellenbosch, is an innovative regenerative farming project that addresses food security through multiple strategies. It was launched in 2019 as a joint initiative of Woolworths, Spier and the Sustainability Institute. The farm not only produces food but also provides employment opportunities and practical training to young farmers through its internship programme. Women farmers are particularly empowered through this approach. Additionally, the farm generates new knowledge and narratives about sustainable agriculture and healthy nutrition, which can influence communities and ecosystems positively.

The type of farming practiced at Living Soils is the type of farming that should be introduced to the community. I am passionate about being an Agricultural Extensionist and I am interested in teaching people about regenerative farming. I would like to use the skills and the knowledge I’ve gained at Living Soils, for example teaching young and growing farmers how to make worm compost from scratch instead of purchasing it. Namhla Rasha, current Student Intern


Impact from the ground up

The strategies employed by Living Soils work synergistically to create positive outcomes.

Interns, once employed, pass on their knowledge and sustainable farming practices to local communities and commercial projects. The success of these practices spreads through word-of-mouth and can inform policy changes and mainstream adoption of regenerative practices.

This momentum can lead to greater support for local initiatives and contribute to a healthy population with access to nutritious food and sustainable farming skills.

Ultimately, regenerative farming practices help restore soil health, enhance biodiversity, and promote healthier and more affordable produce.


Small is beautiful: Living Soils internships and collective action

“I have learned that in order for you to grow healthy and strong you’ll need to eat natural food that is produced out of the ground without any chemicals applied to it … I share my knowledge with my family and friends, especially the ones who have gardens and the ones who are interested in starting their own gardens in my community.” Zainudeen Africa, former Youth-in-Transition Intern (below)

The Living Soils young farmers’ internship programme takes a holistic approach, empowering interns not just with practical farming techniques but also with soft skills and exposure to the broader food value chain. Through integration into supportive networks, interns are exposed to employment opportunities and become equipped to drive change within the food system. The programme adapts to each intern’s insights and experiences, shaping the curriculum in a participatory manner. Interns become agents of change, spreading knowledge and inspiring others to embrace sustainable food choices and farming practices.

Through the knowledge and skills I have gained at Living Soils, I feel more empowered to make a positive difference in the world. I now have a foundation in regenerative farming techniques and sustainable agricultural practices, which I can apply not only in my personal life but also share with others. I am confident in my ability to educate and inspire those around me, whether it’s by engaging in conversations with family and friends about the importance of sustainable food choices or by actively promoting sustainable farming practices. The experience has broadened my understanding of the interconnectedness between soil health, sustainable agriculture, and human well-being. Witnessing the remarkable impact of sustainable farming practices on soil fertility and crop quality has made me realize the vital role that healthy soils play in producing nutritious food. Mapitsi Sedutla

Towards just and regenerative farming futures

A community workshop programme aims to develop regenerative farming knowledge and skills within the Lynedoch community, at-risk households and teachers. From this, two community food champions have come forth and they are driving the regenerative farming movement amongst households, towards greater food security. Secondly, a Community Supported Agriculture model is being considered that would enable customers and communities to have a direct say in what the farm produces.

By reconnecting communities to farming practices aligned with local ecologies and diets, regenerative farming can contribute to a diverse, democratic, culturally responsive, and resilient food system. As the network of stakeholders grows, regenerative farming innovations can be shared more quickly.

From farm to plate, sustainable outcomes are driven by the quality of relationships within the food system. In the end, the holistic nutritional value of the food embodies the lively, collaborative social and ecological relationships that produced it.