In many developing countries, undernutrition is a recognized – and well documented – crisis. However, with increasing urbanization, another health concern is beginning to emerge as people choose to consume foods of convenience rather than exert the effort it takes to grow their own produce.
While nutritious foods are still readily available in rural areas, the industrial urban systems involved with food processing and supply means these healthy foods are being replaced by cheaper alternatives. High in carbohydrates and sugars, these are often very energy-dense but lack the nutritional value of traditional foods.
Studies have revealed that income is a major factor when it comes to nutrition. Since lower-calorie foods that contain higher amounts of nutrients (including fresh produce) is generally quite expensive, populations who earn less money turn to the less healthy options, which are usually more affordable. A good example of this is whole wheat bread, which costs anywhere from 10 to 60 percent more than nutritionally-lacking white bread.
“Access to good, healthy food is what the urban poor need for a more productive and longer life,” said Jonathon Crush with the African Food Security Urban Network (Afsun), noting that there is a need for government interventions to provide increased access to more nutritious foods.
However, with the option of purchasing low-cost produce, fewer people will recognize the benefits of growing their own food. And while they may be able to acquire fruits and vegetables for a smaller financial investment, the cost to their health remains a concern. When you’re not growing your food yourself, you’re blind to the methods of production.
“Low prices at the grocery store give us a false sense that our food comes cheap,” the paper continues. “The higher yields of industrial agriculture have come at great cost to the environment and the social fabric – costs that are not involved in the price of our food.”
The true cost of our food, in fact, depends on the world we live in. Things like water pollution or chemicals like pesticides and antibiotics are not only damaging to the environment but have proven to have a significant impact on health. Studies have shown links between the practices of the industrial agriculture system and conditions including cancer, asthma, diabetes, reproductive issues, and dementia.
“Developing a sustainable economy involves more than just a sustainable food system, and the food system involves more than just agriculture,” states an article published in Environmental Health Perspectives in May 2002. “The health of both the environment and humans would be enhanced if more of our farms made the transition to sustainable systems of production.”
This would encourage closer connections between local producers and local consumers through farmers markets, community-supported agriculture farms, and farmer cooperatives – allowing buyers to find out how their food has been raised and produced. But the system could be enhanced further with more community gardens, increased urban farming, and the adoption of traditional Permaculture practices to maximize yields in a sustainable way.
“Agriculture is sustainable when it is ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just, culturally appropriate, and based on a holistic scientific approach,” the paper continues. “Sustainability rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
As the agriculture industry continues to produce food using unsustainable means, the scarcity of resources and the decreasing nutritional value of food products will become significant factors in ongoing food insecurity around the world. A shift to sustainability and local food production will require a change in mindset, but there is an opportunity to dramatically improve environmental stewardship and public health by making small changes to the way we grow and consume food.
According to David Wallinga with the University of Minnesota’s Food and Health Program, this needs to start on an individual level – people need to take more responsibility for their role in the world’s current state of food insecurity.
“A much broader and deeper understanding of health derives from looking at the food system as an entire system – from consumers back to food processors and farmers,” he said, “and not only at the food itself, but at the health implications of how that food is produced, processed, marketed, and distributed.”