Daily Planet

Understanding urban consumption will be critical in transforming food systems

The links between the environmental and health impacts of our food are becoming ever more apparent. Intensive production and consumption has increased the availability of food, but it has also given rise to land degradation, climate change, water scarcity, and an epidemic of obesity.

Tackling these connections between ecological health  and public health is crucial to transforming global food systems. But with much of the world transitioning to Western, meat-rich, processed diets, and so many trade-offs between health and environment, how can a shared understanding of sustainable, healthy, and environmentally beneficial food be reached?

Pulling together fragmented reporting and recommendations

As a starting point, it’s important to understand that decisions taken in one policy area such as health recommendations, may have implications for ecosystems and natural resources in another. Recommendations on Omega3 and fish stocks are a classic example of this. By pulling together and understanding the interactions between fragmented recommendations and reporting indexes spanning public health and food that we can start to define what a “sustainable healthy diet” really means.

But, moreover, we need to look beyond primary food production and agriculture as a way to solve these issues, and to see the impact of the whole value chain and its interactions. This involves sourcing, trading, packaging, production, distribution and consumption. In particular, tackling the consumption part—consumer behaviour—is key to enabling the necessary shift in food consumption patterns towards healthier and more sustainable diets.

Consumption trends in cities matter

Cities are paramount in understanding and stimulating improvement in consumption trends. Approximately 54 per cent of the world’s population was living in cities in 2016, and this number is expected to increase to 60 per cent by 2030. The increase of population in large, megacities cities is giving rise to a number of challenges and opportunities.

First of all, people living in cities tend to purchase food instead of growing their own, which makes them more vulnerable to food price changes. As in cities the cost of space goes up, the price of both household and retail space increases. As a result, people are storing less food, shopping more frequently with smaller baskets, and consuming more food outside the home. Higher food consumption in city households also means more concentrated food waste accumulation, with opportunities for technology to help increase the efficiency of sorting and recapturing food waste in ways that promote an efficient circular food system. 

Food reform for sustainability and health

These are the early stage findings coming out of our food consumption work on the Food Reform for Sustainability and Health (FReSH) project, a project launched by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the EAT Foundation (EAT) in January, with 30 global, multi-national food companies. The aim is to understand what the value chain and urban food consumption—the interactions, trade-offs and synergies—really means for sustainable, healthy diets.

Major companies with global food value chains, including Kellogg Company, Unilever and Danone Group, are working to share expertise and information on science and markets, and develop partnerships with non-business stakeholders. Under a project supported by Climate-KIC, these companies agreed to open up information to help identify relevant scalable solutions to the various sustainability challenges, including climate change mitigation. What we can learn from this private sector engagement will be a huge leap forward.

There is no single definition of what a “sustainable, healthy diet” is. It is only by taking an umbrella approach, opening up silos and data, and really understanding consumption that we can identify the opportunities to transform the global food system for ecological public health.

Emeline Fellus is programme manager at FReSH, a  joint programme between EAT and WBCSD, to accelerate transformational change in global food systems, and achieve inclusive, healthy, diets produced responsibly within planetary boundaries. 

You can hear Emeline speak at the A New Urban Food Culture, 13.30, Monday 30 October. 

Urban food, understanding consumption trends in cities, innovation in diets and local food production, will be a focus at this year’s Climate Innovation Summit. Register for the Climate Innovation Summit today!