Addressing food insecurity can improve health, develop a more inclusive economy and increase environmental sustainability, says 2017 Premio Daniel Carasso prize winner Dr Jane Battersby-Lennard of UCT’s African Centre for Cities.
The international award rewards and encourages outstanding scientific research into sustainable food systems and diets for long-term health. The Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation first presented it in 2012, then in 2015 and from then on every two years. Battersby-Lennard spoke to Helen Swingler.
HS: As a Premio Daniel Carasso laureate you’ve become the foundation’s ambassador for sustainable food and diets. What does this honour mean to you and your research in food security?
JBL: It is hugely exciting as it means that the sustainable food world is really starting to acknowledge the importance of the urban food security challenge. My work explicitly connects food security, justice and sustainable food systems. The links between production and consumption and between sustainability and equity have not always been recognised. I’m hoping that this award signifies a shift in emphasis in the sustainable food world. The position that I have taken on food security has not always been well received within the development and policy world, as it challenges received wisdom on where the food insecure live (the rural) and what the solutions are (encouraging own production). Hopefully, the award will validate my position.
HS: The prize is intended to give more visibility to a mid-career researcher and to help them inspire junior researchers to develop transdisciplinary approaches to sustainable food systems. It comes with a handsome award of €100 000. How do you plan to use it?
JBL: I will be using a portion of the prize money to support students working on urban food systems. This is an emerging field and I’m keen to develop a cohort of researchers who can work across disciplinary boundaries. The ideal would also be to use some of the funds to buy some time to write a book reflecting on what my work has cumulatively revealed about food systems and how they interact with urban systems. As researchers, we don’t often get a chance to step back and reflect on the bigger picture.
HS: You came to South Africa from the UK more than 15 years ago; what attracted you to this region of the world?
JBL: I lived in South Africa as a child and returned to the UK during high school. When I finished school, I came back to Cape Town to work in a home for street children. During this time I got together with some old school friends from Cape Town and was deeply impacted by the juxtaposition of their lived experiences, aspirations and expectations and those of the youth in the neighbourhood in which I was working. This set my research trajectory, and from undergraduate level to PhD all of my research work was based in South Africa, examining inequality through various lenses. At the end of my PhD it only made sense to come back.
HS: The escalating pull of cities in Africa creates huge pressure on infrastructure, especially at a time of increasing climate change. The drought in the Western Cape has brought this home. How will the drought in the province impact on food security in the city’s poorest regions?
JBL: To be honest, I haven’t seen any figures on food prices in the Western Cape that confirm the impact of drought on local food prices. However, we have a student who has been working on this, and interviewing retailers and processors across the spectrum from the big supermarkets to survivalist traders within the informal food retail sector. Everyone confirms that food prices are going up – those in bigger business attribute it to drought; those working at the margins did not know that the drought was a driver, but noted increases in prices. What we know is that when people find prices too high they do several things. Firstly, they will buy the cheapest option of whatever they’d usually buy. Secondly, they reduce dietary diversity and resort to surviving on staples. They then reduce meal size, reduce meal numbers and ultimately go without. So in times of stress, fresh produce consumption is often sacrificed.
HS: How should we be planning to do things differently?
JBL: The drought is having another important impact. We often think of food security as just being about availability (is there enough?) or accessibility (can you get it?), but it is also about utilisation (can you use the food safely and get the nutritional value from it?). In times of water scarcity there are important concerns about whether people can continue to cook and eat safely. And if, as we are hearing, more and more people are complaining of stomach upsets from the water, then their nutritional status will be further compromised as they can’t get the full nutritional benefit from the food they consume.
One of the things I’ve been arguing in my work is that what makes a food system resilient and able to cope with shocks and stresses, such as drought, is by actively working to maintain a diversity of sources of food and ways to get food from producer to consumer. One of the reasons for the price surge last year was that the drought in the maize-producing regions of the country coincided with a period of weakness of the rand, which made imports more costly at the same time as it became clear that the infrastructure in many of our ports was not able to offload and move imported maize fast enough. We need to ensure that there are multiple pathways available to create a robust food system. This is why preserving agricultural lands in Cape Town, such as the Philippi Horticultural Area, is important. Not only does it have a microclimate and aquifer that makes it drought resilient, but it enables a number of alternative pathways for food to reach the poor – through supermarkets, and through informal traders buying produce via the Cape Town Market or directly from farmers.
HS: If you could implement one major change in the city (or country) vis-à-vis food security, what would that be?
JBL: It would simply be that national government acknowledges that urban food insecurity is a pressing problem and that urban government can have and should play a role in addressing food security. My work, and the work of my colleagues, has been showing that food insecurity is not just about production, nutrition education, or even food prices. It is about a set of problems in the food system and in the urban system. Our work has found that almost every department of local, provincial and national government plays a role in shaping the food system – often against the interests of food security. There is no formal mandate for local government, but we have identified a large number of opportunities for local government to address food insecurity operating within its existing departmental mandates. It is my belief that if we get serious about addressing food insecurity we can improve health, develop a more inclusive economy, increase environmental sustainability and achieve several other strategic objectives of government.
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