Untangling the Hidden Linkages Between Urbanization and Food Systems
In a new paper, Karen Seto makes the case that achieving food and environmental security in an era of rapid urbanization will require a better understanding of how urban and food systems are intertwined.
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
As the human population climbs toward a projected 9 billion by midcentury, plenty of researchers are exploring just how society will be able to feed that many people. But there’s another startling global trend that has received far less attention: most of those people (up to 70 percent) will live in cities.
This shift toward urban living, says Yale’s Karen Seto, has already changed humankind’s relationship with food, including how we shop, what we buy, and how much waste we produce. And as urban populations continue to grow, she says, it will exert untold, and to this point poorly understood, pressures on the global food system.
In the journal Science, Seto makes the case that achieving food and environmental security in an era of rapid urbanization will require a better understanding of how urban and food systems are intertwined. The paper, “Hidden linkages between urbanization and food systems,” was co-authored with Navin Ramankutty, a Professor at the Liu Institute for Global Studies and Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. It is part of a special issue of Science called “Cities are the Future.”
To date, Seto says, a great deal of the research builds upon the notion that urban and higher-income societies consume more meat than the world average, with significant environmental implications. But even this phenomenon, she says, is more complex than it appears.
Writing in Science, Seto calls on the research community to move beyond urbanization’s direct effects on diet and to focus on its indirect effects on resource use and the environment, including the amount of energy required for food production, transport, packaging, and cold storage.
“This link between urbanization and food systems has not been fully explored in a systematic, empirical way,” says Seto, a Professor of Geography and Urbanization Science at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). “And as we transition into a world where 6 or 7 billion people live in cities, we need to start thinking about what that means for food systems beyond just the pure income effect.
“We have to really think about how we design our cities affects what we’re eating.”
Urban planning and land use regulations can promote a diversity of food choices and improve food accessibility for more people; for instance, maintaining shorter, walkable city blocks and incentivizing food shops of all sizes — not just big box stores — creates diverse neighborhood “foodscapes.”
“How cities are designed affects many aspects of the food system,” Seto says. “Imagine a city where you’re driving everywhere and the only way to get to your food stores is driving. You’re more likely to buy packaged foods, refrigerated foods, and you’re likely to buy larger quantities, which in turn can lead to more waste.
“Meanwhile, in cities where the scale of the streets is smaller and people are closer to your food retailers, you’re more likely to shop more frequently and buy less at each shop, buy fresher and with less wasteful packaging.”
Changing dietary behavior will also require a renewed emphasis on consumer education. Sustainable and healthy food choices, Seto says, depends on a population that understands and values farming and food production systems. This is particularly critical as a greater number of people are largely detached from farm communities and processes.
“When you don’t recognize how hard it is to grow food and the amount of time and energy involved, it becomes easier to undervalue it or throw it away,” she said. “It’s a whole other aspect we haven’t thought enough about.”
The original paper:
Seto, Karen C., and Ramankutty, Navin. 2016. “Hidden linkages between urbanization and food systems.” Science. DOI:10.1126/science.aaf7439