A supermarket aisle of fresh vegetables. Source istock.

+ Why secure a supply of a product people won’t eat; why encourage consumption of a product that cannot be secured long term?

The recent droughts in the US and the protests by farmers over milk prices in the UK have brought the issue of urban food security into the spotlight. My research leads me to think that existing approaches to food security are flawed because they fail to get to grips with a fundamental issue: what do people eat and why, and how might that be changed?

Food security is about the availability, accessibility and utilisation of food. So, for example, if a city can’t physically get enough supplies of a particular food, then its food security is threatened. Similarly, if people can’t afford to buy that food or can’t use it to create nourishing meals, then the supply isn’t secure.

It used to be assumed that availability was the main barrier to food security, grow more food and you improve security. However, work in the 1980s by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen brought accessibility into focus as the key barrier; people were still going hungry despite an abundance of food in the world. This still holds and a rise in the number of people accessing charity run food banks in the UK and North America shows this is not just a problem for the developing world.

It’s estimated that a combination of increasing populations and increasing appetites could result in a 70% increase in demand for food by 2050. This demand will have to be met despite global drivers of change like depleted resources and climate change, which make it harder to produce enough food.

In response, some governments and cities are developing food security strategies. Cities in particular have a vital role to play because they will soon be home to 70% of the world’s population. Cities are focusing on agricultural yields, supply chain resilience, distribution within a city, promoting healthy foods and affordability. 

In the US and Canada, food policy councils have been created to promote sustainable food systems at a city scale. US cities are assessing their food systems, while London and a few other UK cities now have a food strategy. A lot of the strategies involve things like promoting urban agriculture, supporting farmers’ markets and helping people to access healthy foods.

But although these initiatives address the availability and accessibility of food, they don’t address the fundamental issue – what foods we eat and why. Why secure a supply of a product people won’t eat; why encourage consumption of a product that cannot be secured long term?

Havana is often held up as an example of good practice in urban food security. In response to sanctions that restrict its trade, the city now grows over 90% of the fruit and vegetables it needs. Yet Havana has a growing obesity problem showing that people there don’t just eat the fruit and veg’ that the city provides. To fully address its urban food security, the city still needs to look more closely at what its people are eating.

Cities, suppliers and retailers need to work together, in dialogue with consumers to develop a blueprint for a secure urban food system that also strives to meet sustainability and public health needs. The Government’s new data scheme about ‘empowering consumers’ could go some way to providing an insight into what we eat if used in collaboration with supermarkets and consumers.

It’s only by understanding how people engage with the urban food system that we can begin to devise a way to ensure urban food security. We may find people need to change their eating habits, but the first step is understanding what those habits are.