Part I: the context of ‘sustainable’ and ‘alternative’ agri-cultures in Zimbabwe

International media is notorious for reporting a disproportionate amount of ‘bad news’.  Likewise, scholarly research on ‘less developed’ countries, such as Zimbabwe, tends to focus primarily on negative aspects. This has been the case in the context of the land reform that was implemented in Zimbabwe in the post-2000 period. We are consistently reminded that Zimbabwe was the ‘Bread Basket of Africa’, but, in the international media, we are rarely informed of solid plans or ideas for the much-needed revival of agriculture.  The following essays will not entertain or deconstruct the complicated politics or outcomes of the Zimbabwean land reform. It is now more important, I suggest, to explore the new possibilities of agricultural development for the future.

I chose to open by referring to the land reform because this is a key aspect shaping the foodscape in Zimbabwe and forms a backdrop to current local food politics and possibilities in the country. The land redistribution program is still underway and re-allocation of land continues, but in terms of the roll out of skills training and development strategies, we mainly hear of concern about lack of donor funds available to purchase necessary inputs (The Chronicle, 6th September 2010).  What is of concern, I suggest, is that the discourse dominating reports seems to be the expectation of (re)building a highly modernised, corporate and commercialised agro-food system. It is a critical time to ask if this approach is likely to bring the environmental and socio-economic benefits that are needed. In considering highly modernised agro-ecological systems elsewhere, it is pertinent to question the wisdom of pursuing a single agricultural development path that has so often led to dire social and environmental consequences (Pretty 2002; Magdoff et al. 2004; Tilman et al. 2002).

As discussed by Tony Weis (2007), the (bio)technological revolution and corporatisation of agrofood systems has in many places led to less employment in the agricultural sector (pp.25-28).   Furthermore, globally speaking, we are becoming more and more dependent not only on a handful of huge global corporations, but on an increasingly limited stock of crops to supply our staple foods:

‘As many as seven thousand plant species have been cultivated or collected for food in human history, but this diversity is shrinking precipitously. There was a drastic decline in both the diversity of crop species planted in agricultural systems and the genetic diversity within species (…) during the twentieth century, with these declines as great as 75 to 90 percent according to FAO estimates. Thirty crops now essentially feed the world, providing 95 per cent of humanity’s plant-based calorific and protein intake’.  (2007: 16)

On top of this we have the increasing prevalence of biotechnology and associated bio-politics, with genetically modified maize now prevalent in neighbouring South Africa and lobbyists encouraging cross-border importation (Irin, Newsday April 2013), which is already taking place informally via remittances.  In the case of Zimbabwe, the Community Technology Development Trust in Harare has highlighted the serious risks posed by the importation or ‘dumping’ of corporate genetically modified (GM) maize and maize seed into Zimbabwe in the guise of ‘food aid’, which has been occurring over the past five years, contaminating local stock, without any accompanying public information program (Thompson 2010).

These concerns and observations echo broader trends in the ‘global food economy’. This economy is characterised by the increasing dominance and agglomeration of transnational corporations, the vertical integration[1] of food chains, the globalisation of diet and the increased branding of food commodities. Scholars and activists alike have illuminated ongoing issues of uneven development, the transformation/destruction of the ‘family farm’, the increasingly uneven distribution of value in commodity chains and the rise of retailer-power.  Overall, it has been argued that the global food economy’s push for large scale, intensive, high input mono-cropping, oriented towards export markets, has in too many cases gone hand in hand with increased socio-economic inequalities, the exploitation of land-owners by corporates and of labour by land-owners, import dependency and outrageously, food insecurity (FAO 2003).  These trends have to varying extents all been witnessed in Zimbabwe over the past decades.

But it is important to look at what happening on the ground, which given the political-economic situation in Zimbabwe and the fragmenting tendencies of the land reform, is rather more complicated and unpredictable than the ‘global’ trends outlined above.  The unique constellation of interacting forces, in specific places, shapes the unfolding of ‘development’; not always in a way that renders the domination of corporate agriculture inevitable.   Can we not, instead of assuming an inevitable doom and gloom, start by attending to the more optimistic notion that “another world is possible” and by looking for positive examples of how local events and contingencies have engendered healthy, sustainable, locally-embedded agri-food systems in Zimbabwe? This is what I have attempted to do in my research. Eschewing the grim and reductionist problems associated with the global food economy, I have begun by engaging instead with ‘on-the ground’ alternative food networks, locally embedded food economies, short food supply chains and holistic sustainability projects.

Being ‘alternative’ in Zimbabwe is not as easily definable as elsewhere, where – for example in North America ad Europe- ‘alternative food networks’, contentious as they may be are more clearly identifiable (at least superficially) by those that market and consume them (think for example, of FairTrade and certified organic products).  There, various territorial and ethical qualities have come to be associated with such food networks, such as social justice, ecological stewardship, cultural identity and geographical origin. They are often (questionably) defined as resistance or opposition to practices pertaining to the mainstream ‘globalised’ industrial food system.  However, here in Zimbabwe, there remain many places where supermarkets have not penetrated and subsistence agriculture still provides the bulk of the (62%[2]) rural community’s staple foods. Consequently, there is not the same division between the ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ that can be found in more industrialised nations. There is also not the consumer awareness or demand for alternative (organic/fairly traded/ ethical) products that can be found in the global North.  According to Economy Watch, gross domestic product (based on purchasing power parity) is only about US$589 per capita in Zimbabwe, compared to a global average of US$15,174.[3] Furthermore, drought and food scarcity are perennial issues, with United Nations World Food Program estimating that at least 1.6 million of the almost 13 million total population would need food aid this year (the 2012-13 dry season).[4]  So the notion of ‘alternative’ food networks becomes strange territory here; alternative to what exactly? Significantly though this context, there are many people forging ‘alternatives’ and not just to hunger and food insecurity.

In such communities, it is well-recognised that much of the drought and food insecurity issues are a direct result of unsustainable agrofood practices. As Allan Savory has demonstrated[5], we have in many places created barren landscapes through our own unsustainable livestock management practices (Savory Institute, 2013). ‘Alternative’ in this context, can then broadly be defined in opposition to the unsustainable (mainstream) agro-food practices that have contributed to desertification, degradation of soils and ecosystems, exploitation and impoverishment of  people and communities, climate change, poverty, malnutrition and disease. As Julious Piti of Zimbabwe’s PORET Trust conveyed, “People need to learn how to live with their natural resources in a sustainable way, without hunger” (personal communication, Feb 2011).

Sustainability in food systems can be defined a variety of ways. To summarise a few common premises: a sustainable food system should minimise the use of non-renewable inputs; should not take more from socio-ecological systems than is put back in; should act fairly with regard for all other human beings both now and in the future; should care for the Earth and our environments, including other living beings; and should create healthy, nourishing foods to be consumed mindfully (Bell 2004).  Furthermore, sustainable agriculture should work with local farmers’ knowledge, improving self-reliance and building on human and social capital (UNCTAD-UNEP 2008). I use the term sustainability in these essays in a broad sense, cognisant of the constancy of change and the contingency of context.  In other words, to sustain is not necessarily to remain unchanged but rather to be resilient in the face of ongoing and multiple challenges.

Considering the array of negative consequences associated with the now dominant trends of the global food economy highlighted above, there are many reasons to follow alternative, more sustainable models of agriculture and food ways. Furthermore, it is acknowledged that crises often precipitate moments of opportunity, or ‘fault lines for transformative possibilities’ (Weis 2007: 8). Considering the crises and upheavals of recent history, it is a key time to explore alternatives and more sustainable strategies in Zimbabwe; and to create and share knowledge of these alternatives to a wider public.  The ‘alternatives’ for a more sustainable agro-food future are too often silenced by the dominant calls for ‘modernisation’, without questioning what kind of modernity is hoped for.

This ongoing research project has taken the approach of seeking out active examples of sustainable agro-food projects. Between October 2011 and July 2012, I visited 18 different projects or organisations across the country, conducting semi-structured interviews with 32 people involved such initiatives. Recognising the importance of sharing ideas, positivity and hope, the following essays draw empirical evidence and inspiration from these active examples of successful ‘sustainable’ agriculture projects in Zimbabwe. The essays consider: 1) food security and sovereignty; 2) building sustainable community and; 3) eco-social imaginaries and transformations. Several of the projects were documented with video, photography and/or in textual form and are available to view here on the blogsite. The aim is to create a useful resource for the organisations themselves and for people interested in learning about these initiatives. It is hoped that this information and discussion will ‘invigorate alternative imaginations and strategic action’ (Weis 2007: 8) for agro-food futures in Zimbabwe.  In doing so, I hope to bring together and contribute to the significant body of ideas already circulating at these diverse project sites, and assist in their efforts to create a more sustainable, positive agro-food future for all.

References and key readings, Part I

Bell, G. (2004) The Permaculture Way: Practical Steps To Create a Self-Sustaining World, Hampshire: Permanent Publications.

Bouagnimbeck, H. (2008) Organic farming in Africa. In Willer, H. M. Yussefi-Menzler and N. Sorensen (eds.) The world of organic agriculture: statistics and emerging trends 2008. IFOAM (Bonn) and FiBL (Frick).

Conway, GR and J. Pretty (1991) Unwelcome harvest: agriculture and pollution. London: Earthscan.

Cousins, B. (2010) ‘Time to ditch the ‘disaster’ scenarios’ Mail and Guardian, May 21st, 2010.

Dorwald, A. (1999) Farm size and productivity in Malawian smallholder agriculture. Journal of Development Studies, 35(5), 59-92.

Economy Watch (2013) Zimbabwe GDP Per Capita (PPP), US Dollars Statistics. http://www.economywatch.com/economic-statistics/Zimbabwe/GDP_Per_Capita_PPP_US_Dollars/  last accessed 10th August 2013.

FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations) (2003) The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2003: Monitoring progress towards the World Food Summit and Millennium Development Goals. Rome: FAO.

FiBL (2000) Organic farming enhances soil fertility and biodiversity. Results from a 21 year field trial. FiBL Dossier 1 (August). Zurich: Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL).

Freidberg, S. (2004). The ethical complex of corporate food power. Environment and Planning D-Society & Space 22(4): 513-531.

Funes, F et al. (2002) Sustainable agriculture and resistance: transforming food production in Cuba. Oakland, CA: Food First Books.

Gereffi, G., J. Humphrey, R. Kaplinsky, and T. J. Sturgeon. 2001. Introduction: Globalisation, value chains and development. IDS Bulletin-Institute of Development Studies 32 (3):1-8.

Gliessman, SR. (1998) Agroecology: ecological process in sustainable agriculture. Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Press.

Goodman, M. K. (2004) Reading fair trade: political ecological imaginary and the moral economy of fair trade foods. Political Geography 23(7): 891-915.

Index Mundi (2013) Zimbabwe Demographic Profile 2013, http://www.indexmundi.com/zimbabwe/demographics_profile.html  last accessed 10th August 2013.

Irin, (2013) Maize shortage renews GM debate in Zim, April 30th. Accessed at http://www.newsday.co.zw/2013/04/20/maize-shortage-renews-gm-debate-in-zim/

Klein, N. (1999) No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, New York; Picador.

Magdoff, F., Foster, J.B. and Buttel, F. (2004) Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Marsden, T. (1997). Creating Space for Food: the Distinctiveness of Recent Agrarian Development. In M. Watts and D. Goodman (eds). Globalising Food   Routledge, London.

Mascarenhas, M. and Hatanaka, M. (2005) Governance in the global agro-food system: Backlighting the role of transnational supermarket chains, in Agriculture And Human Values 22 (3): 291-302.

McMichael, P. (1994). The global restructuring of agro-food systems, London: Ithaca.

Merchant, C. (2005). Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World. London: Routledge

Merchant, C. (2013). Reinventing Eden: The fate of nature in Western culture. Routledge.

Morgan, K., T. Marsden, et al. (2006). Worlds of Food: Place, Power and Provenance in the Food Chain. Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press.

Piti, J. Personal communication: Interview at PORET Trust, 21st October 2011.

Pretty, J. (2002) Agri-culture: reconnecting people, land and nature. London: Earthscan.

Pretty, J.N, T. Lang, A. Ball and J. Morison (2005) Farm costs and food miles: an assessment of the full cost of the weekly food basket. Food Policy 30 (1), 1-20.

Pretty, J.N. (1995) Regenerating Agriculture: Policies and Practices for Sustainability and Self-Reliance, London: Earthscan.

Richardson, P.E. and Whatmore, S. (2009) ‘Alternative Food Networks’ in Kitchen, R. and Thrift, N. (eds.) International Encyclopedia of Human Geography.

Roberts, P. (2008) The end of food: the coming crisis in the world food industry. London: Bloomsbury.

Rosset, P. (1999) The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture in the Context of Global Trade Negotiations, Food First Policy Brief no. 4, San Francisco: Institute for Food and Development Studies, September.

Rukuni, M., & Eicher, C. K. (1994). Zimbabwe’s agricultural revolution. University of Zimbabwe Publications Office.

Sanchez PA. and MS. Swaminathan (2005) Hunger in Africa: the link between unhealthy people and unhealthy soils. The Lancet 365, 442-444.

Savory Institute website, http://www.savoryinstitute.com/ last accessed 10th Aug 2013.

Smil, V. (2000) Feeding the world. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Ted talks (2013) Allan Savory: How to fight desertification and reverse climate change, http://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change.html last accessed 10th August 2013.

The Chronicle (2010) ‘Communal farmers urged to seriously take farming’ Monday 6th September 2010, p2.

Thompson, C. (2010) Our Food Future: African Alternatives to Agribusiness. Seminar given and the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, 18th March.

Tilman, D., KG. Cassman, PA Matson, R. Naylor and S Polansky (2002) Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices. Nature 418, 674-677.

UNEP-UNCTAD Capacity Building Task Force on Trade, Environment and Development (2008) Organic agriculture and food security in Africa, New York and Geneva: United Nations Publication.

United Nations World Food Programme (2013) Zimbabwe Overview, http://www.wfp.org/countries/zimbabwe/overview last accessed 10th August 2013.

Weis, T. (2007) The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming, Zed Books, Ltd, London.

Whatmore, S. (1995) From Farming to Agribusiness: Global Agrifood Networks. In Watts, M. and Johnston, R.J. (eds.), Geographies of Global Change, London: Blackwell.

Whiteside, M. (1998) Living systems: encouraging sustainable smallholders in southern Africa. London: Earthscan.


[1] Vertical integration refers to how individual TNCs coordinate and profit from activities in all spheres of exchange. There has been a strong trend for TNCs, (such as British Associated Foods, Proctor and Gamble, Nestlé, etc.), to buy out operations/firms mediating the food supply chain (Whatmore 1995).

[4]  United Nations World Food Programme 2013: http://www.wfp.org/countries/zimbabwe/overview

[5] Ted talks (2013)

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