It’s not (just) the food

Minister Garzón’s announcement on limitations on advertising for children of foods considered unhealthy has generated all kinds of comments. The old saying “you can’t play with food” has proved its validity, both because of the seriousness of the data used to justify the measure (40% of obesity in children aged 6 to 9 years), and because of the reactions it has provoked (a tweet by Isabel Díaz Ayuso with a brief but radical text in its demagogy “drugs, yes; sweets, no”).

At the start of the Glasgow summit on climate change, the food issue has reached a global importance that it has rarely had before. The well-known relationship between health and food is now full of connections with many other vital aspects in the midst of a climate emergency. Poor nutrition generates one in five deaths in the world, but food production is responsible for more than 25% of greenhouse emissions and intensive systems in that same massive production generates increasingly irreversible damage. The COVID pandemic itself has connections with this food chain subject to pressures whose effects are very worrying.

The cities are, logically, the great hoarders of food products and have been increasing their dependence on foreign production, going further and further afield to look for products. When Mercabarna (the large wholesale market in Barcelona) started operating in 1970, only 15% of the products came from a radius of more than 100 kilometres. Today that proportion is 85%. More than a quarter of the tonnes of food sold at Mercabarna come from abroad, and 35% of what is sold there is exported. Ships, lorries, trains, aeroplanes, etc. move the thousands of tonnes in this logistics centre, with the ecological footprint that all this entails. As the food-proximity binomial has been broken for decades, the vulnerability of the system is highlighted when there is a lack of drivers, when there are collapses in the ports or any other adverse circumstance that endangers the supply.

Food waste (about a third of what we produce ends up in the garbage), inadequate diets (one in four deaths is due to this cause), serious problems of malnutrition, lack of food in some places and in others, overweight and obesity. If we look at the figures related to production, distribution, hospitality and food chains, we can see that the food we consume is not being used as a source of food, but as a source of energy.he economic and employment significance of food is extraordinary. It should come as no surprise that every time someone points out something that is going wrong and forces us to change production or consumption patterns, sparks fly everywhere. No one is willing to sacrifice interests, years of sacrifice and jobs for doomsday statements and predictions that, in many cases, are still seen as unproven hypotheses of people far removed from real life. People with enough resources to change consumption and eating patterns.

No wonder that the mayors of London, Los Angeles, Paris, Athens, Oslo, Stockholm, Freetown or Barcelona, have decided to go together by train from London to Glasgow to show the great importance they give to the environmental issue, or that the great agreement of Milan in 2015 on Cities and Sustainable Food is touring the world (this year with Barcelona as world capital) with a message of awareness and commitment to change in relation to this issue. Cities have an essential role to play if we want to change things. Both in construction and urban planning issues, as in mobility issues or, in what we are talking about now related to food models, cities are essential.

Cities occupy 3% of the planet’s surface area and account for 80% of the world’s GDP, but at the same time, they consume 60% of water resources for domestic use, represent two thirds of energy demand, generate more than 50% of waste and produce 70% of greenhouse gases. In terms of food, they consume nearly 70% of the global food supply, even in countries where the population is mainly rural. Cities are therefore the key to change things.

What there is really is a clear link between poverty and unhealthy eating habits. The prevalence of obesity is five times less pronounced in women with university education than in those who either have no education or only primary education. It is worth dismantling the old assumption that the food choices one makes are unequivocally the result of one’s individual freedom. The choices available to people are not the same in the different neighbourhoods of a city. In segregated areas there is a greater abundance of ultra-processed food and it is more difficult to access fresh produce. Eating well takes time, work, resources and dedication, and it is much easier to eat poorly. We should avoid holding people responsible for their bad eating habits, taking refuge in a non-existent equality of opportunities. Unequal starting conditions are key to trying to improve the situation. Public authorities are responsible for improving both the health and nutrition of citizens, increasingly aware of the close links between health and nutrition.nter one thing or the other.

We can all make better choices, but we must have the material and economic conditions to do so. Linking more food production and consumption from the point of view of proximity, incorporating more food processes in schools, reinforcing information on ultra-processed foods and their effects on health, or, as is now being attempted, reducing the weight of advertising linked to products that end up causing health problems, are some of the basic issues that should be insisted on. Behind the food model there is a model of society.

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