No Looking Back: [Food]ways forward for healthy African cities in light of climate change

The recent IPCC Climate Change and Land Report [1] lays out evidence of the need for urgent shifts in the global systems in light of climate change. This commentary reflects on Chapter 5, the Food Security chapter, from our perspective as researchers focused on urban food systems and non-communicable disease in Africa. Chapter 5 states that “transformational change will require integration of resilience and mitigation across all parts of the food system including production, supply chains, social aspects, and dietary choices” [1]. The report also argues that the current food system requires transformation to address the relatively high cost of nutritious foods, which is a contributing factor to obesity and non-communicable disease. Like the EAT-Lancet Commission report [2], the IPCC Climate Change and Land Report advocates for a diet that is both healthy for the individual and healthy for the planet.

While largely framed in the report and the literature more broadly as aspatial, with an implied rural focus, we argue that changing diets in a way that preserves health of people and plant must incorporate an explicitly urban lens. Not only is the global population now predominantly urban, but many key functions of the food system operate within the jurisdictional boundaries of city governments. An opportunity for national and local governments to engage food security and food systems governance as urban issues arose with the endorsement of the New Urban Agenda at the UN General Assembly in 2016 [3]. This document identified food security and nutrition as a key urban challenge (Para 2) and a public good to be provided by cities (Para 13). It further identifies food as a basic service in the same category of more conventionally accepted basic urban services, such as housing, water, and sanitation (Para 34). Paragraph 123 calls for food system governance and planning at the urban and territorial scales.

It is within this context that we argue for an explicitly urban lens to be brought to the IPCC’s call for food system transformation. For the African context, in which we work, there must be a reimagining of the urban development trajectory. Given the reality of large urban populations, climate change, food security, and NCDs must all be central to the urban policy agenda. Cities should no longer look on economic growth as their measure of successful governance, nor on job creation: in retrospect, this approach has served neither planet nor people. Rather, the success of urban policy must be measured by its ability to support health. In the context of climate change and burgeoning NCDs prevalence in urban Africa, it is essential for urban governments to proactively shape their food systems.

Urban policy must explicitly account for externalities including both health and environmental costs. In many ways, current trends in South Africa already echo with the implications of these externalities: the urban poor are often food insecure [4]. As a result of lack of dietary diversity and poor living conditions, the urban poor suffer from a complex set of diseases, including type II diabetes and hypertension and their corollary illnesses occurring in ever-younger urban populations [5]. As such, we propose an approach to urban development that integrates individual and planetary health [6]. Here, while job creation and economic growth are often considered top of pro-poor agenda, the long-term implication, and quality of employment (does it promote the long-term health of employees and of their environment?) must be prioritised. While the prioritisation of any and all employment has previously seemed central to the well-being of the poor, cities must now prioritise health creation over wealth creation [7].

Further, it is within their powers to do so. City governments in Africa largely assume that they have no food mandate. However, all city governments are directly or indirectly involved in the governing of the urban food system, from public health permits, to issuing of trading permits, to zoning approvals for supermarkets, to the management of transport interchanges, to name but a few. Municipalities are involved in many facets of governing the food system and food security outcomes even if this is not explicitly recognised. This fundamentally shapes the experience of food security in urban areas [8]. For this reason, the City of Cape Town’s new Resilience Strategy, which identifies the establishment of a food systems program as a flagship action to increase urban resilience is an important advance in policy thinking in African cities [9].