GARETH HAYSOM and JANE BATTERSBY LENNARD: Ask yourself: Where do my vegetables come from?
From today’s Business Day. Our new Op Ed. Thanks Gareth
Let’s hope this starts a new wave of conversations about food in our cities(Photo: Gina Ziervogel. Cape Town Fresh Product Market)
GARETH HAYSOM and JANE BATTERSBY LENNARD: Ask yourself: Where do my vegetables come from?The wealthy citizens of Cape Town need to switch from convenience shopping and support local food systems
GARETH HAYSOM and JANE BATTERSBY LENNARD
THE environment in which cities such as Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg function has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. The urban challenges are multifaceted and interconnected. Considering specific components of these converging issues assists in building a greater understanding of the challenges while simultaneously enabling responses that engender positive change — as opposed to entrenching existing problems.
One such focus area is food security. Food is essential to life, but the food question in cities is generally overlooked. Food security is a core component of the contemporary urban challenge. Addressing urban food security requires fundamentally different strategies to those applied in the past.
Food and nutrition are fundamental to a healthy and productive life, yet many go without this constitutionally enshrined right every day. Recent research by the African Food Security Urban Network, for instance, confirmed that residents in poor communities in 11 reviewed African cities contend with varying levels of food insecurity, with 77% of food insecurity recorded in those cities’ poorer communities. But even people who have food often lack the necessary dietary diversity.
The difficulties associated with food insecurity are urgent and require critical action; the broader challenge is to understand how the current and rapidly shifting food system works. This understanding should incorporate issues such as increasing costs of fuel and transport, increasingly frequent extreme weather events brought on by climate change, declines in the quality and availability of fertile and productive soils as this key ecosystem erodes, and increased urbanisation. These all result in urban problems that are experienced most extremely by the urban poor.
Rather than being subject to the global food system — and being passive recipients of flows through this system — African cities need to be able to dictate how they engage in the global food system.
This requires urban food governance strategies that serve all citizens, specifically the most vulnerable. The strategies should create food security and resilience for all.
Focusing on the food system provides a way of understanding a city’s engagement with the broader sustainability problems. This is made abundantly clear in the case of the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) in the Western Cape. The PHA is a large area of agricultural land zoned for horticultural use within the confines of the Cape Town urban fabric. The PHA covers more than 3,000ha of land, of which more than 1,200ha is suitable for food production. This area produces significant volumes of food, most of which goes directly into the Cape Town food system.
There are, however, a number of factors that make the PHA production all the more critical for the sustainability of Cape Town:
• While some of the food grown in the PHA may leave Cape Town, most remains there, building a local food network and negating the consequences of extended and increasing food miles.
• The PHA is located above the Cape Flats Aquifer, which serves as a key water reservoir for the city. Cape Town’s water use will exceed its stored water capacity by the end of this decade and access to this key resource needs to be carefully guarded. Agriculture, it has been found, does not pose any threat to the aquifer. Agricultural practices over the past 50 years have served to preserve the aquifer but its use needs effective monitoring. The aquifer plays a key role in the success of agriculture in the PHA.
• Climatically, the PHA is also a key asset. Cool breezes in summer assist in creating a microclimate conducive to the production of certain vegetables, extending the growing season. Unfavourable climatic conditions in other regional growing areas at certain times of the year exclude these areas from production. However, the PHA is able to remain productive, thus ensuring a flow of food into Cape Town. With temperatures expected to rise as a result of climate change, the PHA will become increasingly valuable to the Cape Town food system, especially for the vulnerable within the city.
The PHA can be likened to a long-term investment, but with a difference. It is currently generating good returns, but these returns may not increase in the future. The value of these returns will certainly increase as other, less well-endowed agricultural production areas experience anticipated declines in productivity due to climate change.
While science is working hard to mitigate these declines, Cape Town has an asset that would enable food access, from food grown within the city boundaries. The work of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen on entitlements from 1981 is useful in framing the question of endowments, specifically when viewing the PHA as an endowment. Sen argues for the enhancement of the specific endowments of the poor, however small these may be, to facilitate greater access to entitlements. For Cape Town, the PHA is a vital endowment and the advantages described above would enable the attainment of entitlements (food security, nutrition, health).
For this reason, the PHA should be protected and preserved.
Although the case of each city was different, many had similar such advantages, often in the form of peri-urban land that is used for food production, but is under threat as the cities grow.
Currently there are a number of initiatives that seek to remove the PHA from the urban landscape. The area is under threat from increased applications for land-use change, specifically arguing for urban development of the area. These requests are often couched in the promise of housing for the poor. However, due to the aquifer, the costs of ensuring that flooding is prevented and that the homes are dry and safe would exclude subsidy housing from these plans.
If the area is not suitable for the development of housing for the poor, and if the area provides such potential for long-term food access, why is it still under threat?
Are those who champion Cape Town as a sustainable city truly serious about this, or is sustainability more about sustainable infrastructure and not real lived sustainability; sustainability lived by all citizens?
Further, why are the sustainability champions not advocating the retention of the PHA as a food production area. Why are they silent at this time?
While the answers, and perhaps excuses, to these questions would be complex, they are possibly irrelevant. The core question is how to mobilise citizens to take their food seriously, to argue that the city needs to actively support processes to ensure a sustainable food system is in place.
The wealthy citizens of Cape Town and other African cities need to switch from comfortable convenience shopping and support local food systems. This is both an ethical and an economic issue. Asking questions about food, where it came from, the consequences of that process, and if other, more sustainable and suitable processes are possible, is essential. Asking these questions and demanding a more sustainable food system is a key aspect of citizenship. It is what living (and eating) in a city should be all about.
Calling for and supporting a food system that is sustainable, equitable and resilient is a democratic obligation.
• Haysom and Battersby Lennard are researchers with the African Food Security Urban Network, a programme in the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town.”
University of Cape Town