Corinna Hawkes: cities and food
If we are to achieve real change, we need to transform the global food system. We talked to Corinna Hawkes about the challenges facing large cities, the relationship between the urban and rural world, and the importance of individual responsibility in transforming our food systems. As Professor of Food Policy at City University of London, she works intensively with her team to find alternatives to strengthen food policies and to ensure that they improve nutritional and environmental outcomes, people’s livelihoods and the economic aspects of food.
Question: When we talk about formulating a healthy and sustainable food system, what exactly do we mean? What are the characteristics of this “ideal” model?
Answer: There are specific characteristics of the ‘ideal’ food system. Rather what defines a “healthy and sustainable food system” is the outcomes it has – for nutrition, health, environmental sustainability, livelihoods, equitable economic development and social cohesion. A “healthy and sustainable food system” is simply one that leads to positive outcomes for nutrition, health, environmental sustainability, livelihoods, equitable economic development and social cohesion.
Q: How does the growth of large cities affect the nutrition of people living in them?
A: Living in a city is in some ways associated with better nutrition – stunting and wasting is typically (although not always) lower in cities. Urban children aged 6-23 months tend to have higher meal frequency, dietary diversity and minimum acceptable diet. However, urban babies are less likely to be breast fed and more likely to experience overweight and obesity, which is negative for nutrition. People in cities are more exposed to obesogenic environments and work makes it more difficult for women to breastfeed. But there can also be greater access to nutritious foods. So it’s a mix.
Q: In your view, what is the relationship between the urban and rural worlds and what should it be like?
A: The urban and the rural are not separate; they are connected. Food flows largely from rural to urban, but money flows back again. They are also mixed-up together. Food can be produced in urban as well as rural areas; rural people have to eat as much as urban ones do. They may look different but rural and urban are part of the same overarching food system and economic system. Both rural and urban people deserve to eat well; let‘s start there and figure out how the urban rural relationship can support that rather than idealising a specific relationship.
Q: Do you think it is important to improve that relationship? If so, what concrete practices could help strengthen it? Can you provide any examples?
A: The urban-rural relationship should be designed to ensure people are well nourished. For example, that might involve better infrastructure to enable rural producers to access and build markets in cities. On the other hand, remembering that undernutrition tends to be higher in rural areas, it should also involve ensuring rural people, especially women, have more power in the supply chain to ensure they are properly compensated for their labour. The importance is to develop a relationship that will improve the outcomes we care about.
Q: What are the challenges we face at the moment of reformulating food systems? What is the biggest challenge cities have to face?
A: The challenges are huge; reformulating food systems so that they achieve better outcomes involves challenging the way things are currently done and the power in the system. The biggest challenge for cities is inequality: they contain a lot of vastly wealthy people, and a lot – far mor alas – people who experience exploitation and poverty. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in food systems and beyond to address urban inequality such as tackling the unequal distribution of wealth between those who control and manage food systems and those who labour in it for a pittance. These inequalities exist within cities and between urban and rural.
Q: Which cities do you consider to be benchmarks in terms of food systems? Why? Have they implemented any actions that you particularly admire?
A: It’s exciting to see the different actions cities are taking around the world. There are many examples, as showcased in the examples given by the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact and other urban initiatives. I am always impressed by what I read and love meeting government officials and others from cities who share their stories about what they are doing. I am always astonished by what Belo Horizonte, Brazil, did so early on but it’s hard to say which cities have set the ‘benchmark.” I think the most important thing is that all cities – wherever they are in the process – learn from each other, inspiring each other to take effective action and move along the journey of change, reflecting as they go, learning by doing and from each other.
Q: How prepared do you think the world is to take on the great challenges of a sustainable food system for all?
A: We will not be prepared to really address this challenge we have bolder and more courageous leadership that is committed to change. I wrote about this recently in a blog What type of leadership for a well-nourished world? This leadership needs to learn from what already exists – the competence, adaptability, resilience, collaboration and ingenuity that women show in feeding their families and as the labour force in the food system. We all need to take responsibility for naming these practices, skills and competences, nurturing them where we see them in our own workplaces and work to elevate them into the corridors of power where decisions about food systems are made.
Q: Could the choice of organic food help to improve food systems? Why?
A: Any production system is better than one that recklessly destroys soils, biodiversity, water, air etc. Organics is one of those systems. There are a lot in-between; the point is to ensure production systems are constantly improving with regard to environmental impact. It‘s a journey.
Q: A diet that is poor in nutrients severely affects people’s health. How does a poor diet affect environmental pollution and the loss of biodiversity?
A: Scientific studies have established that producing red meat emits greenhouse gases, so a diet high in red meat is bad for health and planet. Of course, very low, modest amounts – which is all the human body benefits from – is fine, and for many very poor children in developing countries meat is an important source of vitamins and minerals. Beyond that different foods do have different greenhouse gas emissions, as Food and Climate Change, a really useful book just published by Sarah Bridle shows. There are also many differences between the same products that are produced in different ways. In terms of pollution and biodiversity, all agriculture, horticulture, livestock raising and fisheries inevitably have environmental impact. It’s a question of adopting production practices which are regenerative in nature rather than exploitative.
Q: In the search for a more sustainable food system for all, we know that individual responsibility is a fundamental aspect. What habits do you think everyone should adopt to contribute to this goal?
A: The most important habit would be to hold decision-makers accountable for effecting change. We all have a responsibility to do that.