Learning from hawksbeard: Food and nutrition policy in the new urban landscape

April 4, 2017

A few months ago I came across a scientific paper about a plant called hawksbeard. The scientists studying these dandelion-like plants noticed that when growing in urban settings their seeds were heavier than their rural counterparts. The heavier seeds were less likely to be blown away on the wind and therefore land on urban concrete and more likely to fall near the parent plant and onto soil. The hawksbeard plants in urban settings had adapted to urban pressure—and all in the space of 15 to 20 growing cycles.

Has the food and nutrition policy community adapted to the new urban realities and, if not, how should it? This was the topic of the launch of the new IFPRI Global Food Policy Report on urbanization, food security, and nutrition.

The report is excellent and solution-oriented, as we would expect from IFPRI.

In my presentation at the Geneva launch on March 31 (kindly hosted by UNCTAD), I stressed several points:

  • Urbanization is happening very rapidly. Asia is now 50 percent urban. Africa will be 50 percent urban by 2035. Between 2014 and 2050, Nigeria alone is estimated to add 212 million people to its urban population. (These figures are from the UN World Urbanization Prospects 2014.)
  • This rapid change brings new problems. Urbanization is a major force for driving up rates of consumption of highly processed foods, overweight and obesity, and the non-communicable diseases they are risk factors for. But it is not driving down undernutrition at a similar rate. Populations are not the only thing urbanizing—malnutrition is too.
  • These trends are due to a number of factors, including: A dislocation of work and home—meaning more unhealthy and highly processed food is consumed out of home, more highly processed foods are purchased in the marketplace, there is less time for childcare, informal and formal workplace conditions may be unhealthy, and sanitation and water environments are more toxic in under-governed, high density urban locations.
  • But there are solutions. Food markets are not only transmission mechanisms for poor quality expensive food—they also can be transmission mechanisms for low cost, safe and nutritious foods. We need to stimulate the demand for healthier foods, meet that demand and create a policy and legislative space that encourages this synergy. In addition, behavior change might be more tractable in urban contexts due to the higher penetration of mass media and social media. Workplace conditions can be made more nutrition-promoting and could become platforms for promoting wider behavior change in employees and employers. Food fortification tends to be more feasible in urban settings with higher compliance rates and easier enforcement of legislation.
  • To stimulate and access these solutions, we need to confront the problem and stop thinking that urban = well-nourished. We need to shed the complacency that just because an intervention approach works in a rural area, it will represent the best approach in an urban area (or is even one that works). We need to identify and develop potential solutions by building new relationships and accessing different thinking from uniquely urban actors—food purchasers in retail chains, municipal leaders and media and social media leaders.

We in the food and nutrition policy and practice community need to adapt—fast—to the rising urban stimuli. In other words, we need to learn from the humble hawksbeard plant.

Lawrence Haddad is executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and a former IFPRI senior research fellow. This post first appeared on the GAIN blog.