urban farm rooftop BENJAMIN CREMEL/AFP/Getty Images

Cities Hold the Key to Food Sustainability

Jean-Jacques Rousseau condemned urbanization for encouraging the selfish, corrupt pursuit of one's own good at the expense of others. He was half right: today, it is cities that that can solve our toughest challenges, including poverty and hunger, but only if their governments can prevail over the powerful interests that cities generate.

AUSTIN – Living in a city turns you into a cannibal. That, at least, is the metaphor preferred by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who considered cities a pit of human corruption. Rousseau was so convinced of the malign effects of urbanization that he “would rather see men grazing on meadow grass than devouring each other in cities.” Urbanization inures people to the suffering of the countryside, and as townspeople crowd together, their capacity for compassion toward others atrophies. Urbanites become the kind of people who are ready to sacrifice one another to satisfy their appetites: cannibals. 

Rousseau’s fear that cities inspire inhabitants to pursue their own interests at the expense of others remains as relevant today as it was in the eighteenth century. And nowhere is this truer than in the food system.

For as long as there have been towns, there have been strategies to feed them. In the United Kingdom, the allotment movement during the Industrial Revolution established a system that gave the working poor access to land for the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. Today, these urban gardens remain a popular means of sustenance for British urbanites; an estimated 350,000 people have allotments and another 800,000 want them.

Cities worldwide are recognizing the importance of urban agriculture, and particularly urban agroecology, which uses biological diversity – rather than chemical inputs – to build soil quality, increase crop yields, and manage water use. Metropolitan areas from Rome to São Paolo have supported agroecology to tackle health crises, climate change, and poverty.

But if you have never heard of this type of farming, a careful reading of Rousseau might explain why: it threatens the wealth that urban elites accumulate.

Rousseau anticipated where and how democracy becomes subverted: “If cities are harmful, capitals are even more so,” he once wrote. “A capital is an abyss where nearly the entire nation goes to lose its morals, its laws, its courage, and its liberty.” In the context of food, capitals today are where money is spent to stop local governments from protecting citizens.

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Consider the food industry’s lobbying campaign during the run-up to the recent midterm elections in the United States. In Washington State, The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Keurig Dr Pepper spent over $20 million to craft a ballot measure to prevent cities from raising taxes on groceries – including sugar-sweetened beverages, which are known to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. The initiative passed, and although Seattle’s current soda tax was exempted, other cities will not be able to follow suit. In order to keep grocery bills low and industry profits high, Washington State residents were persuaded to sacrifice one another.

They are not alone. Over the last decade, 12 American states have passed legislation to stop municipalities from addressing the public-health crisis of processed foods, and at least 26 states have enacted laws to shield food companies from lawsuits linked to diet-related diseases. Although some policymakers do recognize that the food industry is emulating Big Tobacco’s tactics, Rousseau predicted a more general trend: urban wealth is incompatible with public liberty.

In the 1760s, when Corsicans asked Rousseau for advice on writing a constitution, he counseled that they should remain peasants. “An agricultural people should never covet the leisure of the cities and envy the life of the do-nothings that inhabit them,” he admonished. “Commerce produces wealth, but agriculture ensures freedom. You may say it would be better to have both wealth and liberty, but they are incompatible.”

To be sure, Rousseau’s unyielding anti-urbanism is well past its expiration date. One reason the modern food industry is so aggressive in pushing its products is precisely because cities have become engines of progressive change. More than presidents, mayors recognize that ensuring a healthy food system requires uprooting an unhealthy one. In fact, a growing number of municipal governments are embracing efforts like the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, which encourages new approaches to tackling hunger, ecological risk, and sustainability.

But Rousseau is still right in another sense: policies cannot happen without politics, and the greatest challenge to feeding tomorrow’s cities lies in the problems that concentrated wealth creates. Urban and rural hunger are products of poverty, and poverty is a consequence of modern food systems. In the US, seven of the ten lowest-paying jobs are in the food industry, even as the companies that comprise it post record profits.

It is not through the literal tilling of the land that we will feed future cities. Rather, it will be in undoing Rousseau’s social “cannibalism.” That means cultivating solidarity with those most hurt by today’s food system and using shared outrage at the growing number of malnourished and poorly nourished to organize collectively for genuine change.

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