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 The Centre of Excellence in Food Security

Food and nutritional security are imperative for human survival with dignity and are necessary for economic vitality, social justice, human health and environmental health. South Africa is a stark exemplar of the double burden of malnutrition in Africa, with persisting significant levels of stunting and micro-nutrient deficiencies, as well as a rapidly accelerating epidemic of obesity and associated non-communicable diseases, especiallY diabetes and heart disease. This pattern of malnutrition is increasingly expressed in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) and is closely associated with diets that are nutrient-poor, often lacking in variety and low in micronutrients and protein.

In South Africa this increasingly dominant diet is a reflection of a highly concentrated and globalised food system, with small-scale food production being increasingly marginalised. Moreover, South African food companies (manufacturers and retailers) are expanding into sub-Saharan Africa, influencing many countries’ food environments and nutritional indicators. Hence, South Africa’s experience and policies can inform improved understanding and policy making on the continent.


Since the advent of democracy there has been a vigorous process of policy making in the fields of agriculture, food, trade and nutrition and the implementation of several large-scale programmes.

Nutrition policies and programmes initially focussed on nutritional deficiency – and since 1994, the Integrated Nutrition Programme (INP) has provided a broad framework for the re-orientation of nutrition services in South Africa, as a result of which significant gains have been made. Additional specific policies in relation to micronutrient deficiencies, infant and young child feeding, school feeding and nutrition in HIV have also been developed, although implementation has often been sub-optimal.

In the past five years, policy making processes in nutrition have intensified, with the South African government recognising the urgency of the widespread double burden of malnutrition and its relationship to the food system. A recent important intervention has been the introduction of legislation to limit the salt content in food.

Centre of Excellence at UWC

It is timely, then, that a research initiative – the Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Food Security – has been established at the University in 2014, directed by Julian May of the Institute for Social Development. Co-hosted with the University of Pretoria (UP), this is the first time a CoE has been hosted at an historically disadvantaged institution – and follows the University of the Western Cape (UWC)’s successful bid in response to a call for applications by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF).

The CoE is a virtual centre. At UWC the main units involved are the School of Public Health (SOPH) and PLAAS (Institute of Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies). Other members of the CoE in South Africa are researchers at the universities of Cape Town, Fort Hare, Johannesburg, Limpopo, Nelson Mandela, North West, Stellenbosch and Venda, as well as the Tshwane University of Technology, the Agricultural Research Council, and the Water Research Commission. The international partners are the Australian National University, City University of New York, International Food Policy Research Institute, Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, Michigan State University and Missouri University.

Scope and structure

The scope of work to be undertaken by the DST/NRF CoE in Food Security comprises research, capacity building and dissemination on how a sustainable food system can be achievedX to realise food security for poor, vulnerable and marginal populations.

The CoE’s work is structured under several research programmes, two of which are health and nutrition led by Rina Swart of UWC’s Department of Nutrition and Dietetics and consumer choice and the food environment led by David Sanders of the SOPH. Related research programmes include the food value chain as well as food production and processing.

The CoE has already provided funding to the PURE (Prospective Rural and Urban Epidemiological) project in which the SOPH is involved, with the objective of investigating in greater detail the dietary choices and immediate food environment of the PURE cohorts in urban Langa in Cape Town, and rural Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape. The definition of the monthly household ‘food basket’ and factors shaping it will be core to gaining a better understanding of the determinants of food and nutrition security in typical urban and rural settings.

Additional research projects already funded under the CoE include an investigation by colleagues at the Medical Research Council into the impact of provision of the child support grant on the diversity of diets purchased by mothers for their small children.

The annual budget of the CoE will be between R7 and R10 million per year over the next ten years. The research programme allows for postgraduate scholarships at UWC and partner institutions, with significant participation by students from previously disadvantaged communities.

It is envisaged that the expertise, energy and funding mobilised under the umbrella of the CoE will assist the SOPH to advance its work in the area of nutrition as a key social determinant of South Africa’s large burden of disease.


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