Platform for African – European Partnership in Agricultural Research for Development

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Ultra-processed food (UPF) on the African continent

African Centre for Biodiversity (2023) Introduction to ultra-processed food (UPF) # 14 p.

In this series focusing on ultra-processed food (UPF) on the African continent, the African Centre for Biodiversity explores the impacts of shifting dietary patterns, with increasing reliance on low-cost UPFs globally, and in Africa in particular, in the context of an urgent call for a just, agroecological food system transition.

UPF has become ubiquitous with the growing westernisation of diets on the continent, yet gravely threatens the health and well-being of people and the planet. The extreme power of the food industry, linked to the increasing industrialisation, concentration and commodification of African seed, agriculture, retail, foods and diets requires urgent policy and societal attention and response.

Despite the massive contribution of UPF to land use and land-cover change, climate change and biodiversity loss, it has failed to garner the necessary urgent attention in international fora, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In fact, it is completely neglected in the Global Biodiversity Framework, finalised in December 2022.

Through this series, the African Centre for Biodiversity aims to firmly advocate for an agroecological food system transition that situates smallholder farmers, territorial markets, traditional retailers and the dynamic networks that facilitate the movement of produce in the centre. This will, inter alia, entail testing UPF against the 13 principles of agroecology developed in 2019 by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) High Level Panel of Experts on Food and Nutrition (HLPE); in particular, HLPE principles 9 (social values and diets); 10 (fairness); 11 (connectivity); and 13 (participation) (HLPE, 2019).

As we embark on this learning journey, we invite you – our friends and comrades – to join us in exploring these intersecting issues so that we might better equip ourselves with the knowledge and information to regain our power and agency, and redefine and restore our broken food system.

In the first part of the series, the African Centre for Biodiversity attempts to succinctly describe and define UPF, how it differs from other foods and outline the major concerns with UPF. 

In this second part, the African Centre for Biodiversity delves into the consumption of UPF in Africa: shifting dietary patterns linked to food environments and personal motivations; where foods are purchased and the role of policy in shaping food accessibility and affordability.

This factsheet explores UPF consumption in both rural and urban areas; the relationship between food environments and food choice; systemic injustices and linkages between production, consumption and trade agreements, as part of the discussion on shifting dietary patterns increasingly dependent on readily available, cheap and nutritionally-void UPF. While there is a clear trend in this direction, there is still a high consumption of vegetables, legumes and whole grains in the region compared to much of the world, linked primarily to traditional retail and supply chains.

Currently, African states tend to invoke an antipathy towards the informal food sector, where informal food retailers predominate and are the primary source of healthy food for the urban poor in particular. Current policies encourage and facilitate the growth of private sector food supply chains, which translates into more processed food and the means to distribute it more efficiently and cheaply.

The increasing industrialisation, concentration and commodification of African seed, agriculture, retail, foods and diets, along with lack of regulation, accountability and disclosure of how food is being grown, manufactured and consumed, requires urgent attention to shift state mandates, policies and, ultimately, realities on the ground. This demands agroecological and territorial conceptualisations of food and agricultural dynamics, placing smallholder farmers, territorial markets and traditional retailers at the centre.

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