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City Food Systems


By Prof. Raphael G Wahome edited by Zachary Kimari

Cities are largely dependent on the rural areas for food. Unwittingly, they usually are the final and most important component of the complete city food system. In a nutshell, the food system is simply  an economic system, that facilitates  production, aggregation, processing and distribution of food to city dwellers; with proceeds flowing back through the value chain actors’ and even further  back to input manufacturers. However, it is much more complex than that it seems. It has effects on soil structure, fertility and water-holding capacity; resilience to climate change, crop, animal and human productivity; food security, health and biodiversity; social capital, employment generation, gender; and general national development. It is therefore apparent, that it transcends geopolitical relationships, politics, governance, social and cultural aspects.

The demand for affordable foods in the cities grows at the rate of population growth modulated by changing tastes and cultural diversity. There is also a  similar increase in enterprises to meet this demand, driven by desire for profit.  These enterprises span across the provision of needed inputs and equipment, through aggregation transport and distribution to the consumer industry of retailing and restauranting. 


Interest to make money has overridden core needs of sustainability, health, fairness and care

Opportunity for gain abounds, since people must eat. In modern times, interest to make money has overridden core needs of sustainability, health, fairness and care. The consequences are manifest in depleted and poisoned soils, loss of biodiversity, exponential increase in non-communicable diseases,  oppression and exploitation of the producing communities and urban poor.In their current state, city food systems are not sustainable and are failing to meet food and nutrition needs for all.

Farmer Spraying Farm

Increasing demand for food is linked to greater, intensified and extensive  use of synthetic agricultural inputs. Ultimately Modern farming has  been equated to desertion of nature for production needs. It does this at a high cost to the environment and resultant loss of resilience among the poor.  The cost of biodiversity loss or for ecosystems services is not met by the current system. Approximately 60% of the ecosystem services examined in the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment are being degraded or used unsustainably (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – Synthesis, 2005).  Finally, nature has started to fight back. Now even FAO has recognized the need for “production intensification through ecosystem management” (Plant Production and Protection Division, www.fao.org/ag/AGP). That ideally, consumers should care about what they eat is produced, how safe and nutritious it is, has come as a revelation to many. 

Despite this “revelation” agricultural production tends to follow the same old cue. It seems as if the only approvable model of agricultural production in the developing world must ape that in developed world – meaning greater intensification and mono-cultural production dependent upon stronger push for more synthetic input. It is thus easy to predict the outcome. With nature fighting back, more inputs must be made available for less production until vast portions of hitherto productive land lies in waste. Examples abound globally and locally.

The following article appeared on the Kenya Organic Food Festival and Exhibition 2018 Proceedings

Health and Agriculture – The “Missing” Links

Agriculture produces the world’s food, fibre and materials for shelter; and in many countries it is also an important source of livelihood among the poor. Also, sometimes agriculture is related directly to poor health including malnutrition, food-borne illnesses, livestock-related diseases and chronic diseases. In turn, health also affects agriculture influencing demand for food, work performance, productivity and income.

People eat to live; to be healthy; and for the simple joy of it. However, bad eating can lead to Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) including diabetes, heart disease, blood pressure, gout and cancer. In fact, the prevalence of NCDs and the risk factors at local level is high and on the rise. NCDs account for 63% of mortality globally. By 2030, the four main NCD-related deaths (cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers and chronic respiratory illnesses) in Africa will exceed the combined deaths from communicable diseases, nutritional, maternal and neo-natal deaths by 75%.

The cost of care for NCDs dominates health care budgets. In Kenya, NCDs accounts for more than 50% of total hospital admissions and more than 55% of hospital deaths. Finally, mental illnesses such as depression are rising and associated with other NCDs. Kenya’s health care system is not adequately equipped to manage such NCDs burden.

 However, healthy diets can help reduce the risk. Eating nutrient dense foods and balancing energy intake with the necessary physical activity and a healthy weight is essential. The density of nutrients in foods is dependent on production practices.  Although complex to explain, it is clear that diet and foodstuffs production practices impact on consumer’s health. Informed authority has it that foods, rather than nutrients, should form the basis for dietary recommendations on the rule of the thumb: “eat a variety of real foods; mostly plants”.

 However, current systems of agriculture are designed to reduce food diversity. Four main crops – rice, maize, wheat and potatoes – provide two-thirds of global dietary energy intake. Agriculture has increasingly become an engine for generating animal feed, biofuels and industrial ingredients (e.g. sugar-sweetened beverages, ready-to-eat meals and snacks).

New investments in food systems research and production are needed to develop technologies for production of nutrient dense crops at lower cost; in tandem with efforts to develop food value chains to meet the new demand efficiently. These efforts are important for supporting stable incomes for farmers, expanding the production, preservation and distribution of vegetables, pulses and fruits. They are also needed to popularise healthier production environments, food business, healthier eating and healthier lifestyle. Indeed, widespread behavioural changes towards preference for pulses, vegetables and fruits in schools, workplaces, markets and in homes may also be effective without restricting choices. The desired change may be achieved by public policy, strategy and practice at community level.

 We now see that new thinking is needed to afford these multiple benefits. For example, pulse, fruits, vegetables and traditional varieties production and processing businesses can offer new livelihood opportunities for millions. In this way, food systems can be leveraged to affect human health and nutrition: positively influencing food safety, food prices, household incomes and women’s access to productive resources. It can have a positive impact on the environment and many human health and nutrition outcomes related to extreme weather.

 All stakeholders should confront the challenge and find solutions for improved nutrition and health; ending hunger and malnutrition while protecting the ecosystem services.

Health and Agriculture – The “Missing” Links written By Eustace Kiarii appeared in The Kenya Organic Food Festival and Exhibition 2018 Proceedings