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Transforming urban food systems starting from consumption: a reflection on the 2022 International Symposium on Nutrition

This year’s International Nutrition Symposium was all about the urban nutrition transition and the question: “How do we change consumer behaviour towards more sustainability?”

by Irene Fabricci and Louisa Nelle | 2022-02-08

Transforming urban food systems starting from consumption: a reflection on the 2022 International Symposium on Nutrition

The world is rapidly urbanising, drastically changing our consumer behaviour, entailing a profound change in our food systems from production to consumption. How food is produced, processed and consumed has a major impact on our environment and our well-being.  

Our current food system is responsible for 24% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Urban food consumption is a large source of these GHGs and it is expected that by 2050 80% of all food will be consumed in cities. 

This year's International Nutrition Symposium was all about urban transformation. Nicolas Bricas, member of IPES Food’s Expert Panel and senior scientist at CIRAD, framed the Symposium with the simple but key question: “How do we change the behaviour of consumers towards more sustainability?” 

The double burden of malnutrition 

The unsustainability of current food systems is also increasingly reflected in the impact on consumers and their health. The latest report on The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World shows that many regions and countries are increasingly dealing with multiple forms of malnutrition simultaneously. This coexistence of undernutrition, along with overweight and obesity, is referred to as the “double burden of malnutrition”.  

Hibbah Osei-Kwasi, Postdoctoral Researcher on Health and Nutrition at the University of Sheffield, presented trends for Africa, showing that overweight and obesity and associated non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are much more prevalent in urban than in rural areas. This trend is often associated with a change in diets and exercise, generally referred to as the nutrition transition. The factors driving this change are however more complex and little understood. Much research conducted so far focuses on the individual behaviour. There is a lack of evidence on how environments drive dietary behaviour in Africa. Hibbah Osei-Kwasi and her team developed a food environment framework to better understand the multiple factors driving dietary changes in urban Africa. Applied in Ghana and Kenya, the framework reveals that food prices have a direct effect on food choices. But other factors such as traditional taboos and women’s empowerment also play an important role in diets.  

Poverty exacerbates malnutrition in all its forms 

Beyond urbanisation, poverty has a strong influence on diets,  exacerbating malnutrition. Cecilia Tacoli, Senior Associate at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), stressed the importance of analysing poverty in its multiple dimensions to understand its impact on malnutrition, obesity and hunger.  While low income is a major factor in understanding the impact of poverty, other elements, such as reliability on precarious informal employment, inadequate housing, lack of access to hygiene and sanitation, as well as the physical distance to basic public services and workplaces, all constitute dimensions of poverty that shape the diet and nutrition of the urban poor.  The nutritional transition model, therefore, can help us understand the linkages between urbanisation, food systems and dietary changes; however, Tacoli argued, it needs to be applied using a disaggregated and place-based lens. People in informal settlements for example, live in an environment that influences their dietary choices differently from a person living in another area of town. Such a more nuanced perspective questions the advantages that are often attributed to living in cities, such as proximity to health centres and better food availability. 

The role of urban food environments in shaping people’s dietary behaviour 

Nicolas Bricas questioned efforts to change people’s individual behaviour, which are often inefficient and prompt feelings of shame in individuals who are unable to change their diet. Instead, he recommended changing the urban food environment to change people’s diet and improve their nutrition. The concept of food environment refers to “the physical, economic, political and socio-cultural contexts in which people engage with the food system to make their decisions about acquiring, preparing and consuming food.” Food environment highlights how decisions about food consumption are based not only on availability, accessibility, and affordability, but also on the various spaces where these decisions are taken. As the responsibility and power of changing these spaces goes beyond the possibility of individuals, Bricas stressed the importance of urban planning in food system transformation and the role of municipal authorities in this endeavour.  

Cities are taking agency in changing their food systems 

In fact, many municipal authorities around the world are stepping up to address lacking or limited national policies and are steering the way for urban food systems transformation. At the Symposium, Jess Halliday, from RUAF, presented many successful examples of cities that are shaping their food system and the lessons-learnt of governance processes that include urban nutrition policies. Some of these are collected as case studies in the Food Action Cities platform. One of her key take-aways was the importance of meaningful citizen participation in all stages of planning, implementation and monitoring of such policies for their effectiveness and sustainability. This highlights once again the relevance of a consumer perspective, in this case the political food environment in which people have a say on the policies impacting their food consumption.    

To answer Nicolas Bricas’ initial question, a consumption perspective on food systems does not mean that it is the individual consumer who needs to change behaviour, but we need to change the larger context in which consumption takes place. This means, changing food environments rather than changing individual behaviour. Looking at food systems from a consumption perspective helps uncover the possible pathways of transformation towards more sustainable urban food system while recognizing the role of community governance processes, urban planning and municipalities in these transformation processes. 

Photo credits Carsten ten Brink.

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