Food is basic to human existence for a number of intricately interconnected reasons. Food and agriculture lie at the root of all that we are as human beings, and a great deal of what we do as social creatures.
Biologically, food provides the nutrients and minerals essential to cellular maintenance and repair, which, cumulatively and collectively, sustains or—for the many hundreds of millions of people who are unable to access adequate amounts of nutritious food—impairs the healthy functioning of each individual.
Socially and culturally, food embodies a wide array of traditions through which social collectives obtain shared meaning, history and identities.
Economically, the complex of activities around food and agriculture constitutes a very significant sector of economies, both nationally and globally. Food has become a significant sector of the global economy, creating benefits and opportunities for some whilst destabilising many food producers and communities around the world.
Politically, the compact between a society’s rulers and its citizens secures essential material elements for life. When food becomes scarce, such as when it is priced out of the reach of ordinary people, this compact is strained and at risk of fracture. We have seen this in recent years with the 2008 Global Food Crisis and the 2011 Arab Spring.
Finally, the production and consumption of food—and the question as to what becomes of the ‘wastes’ generated at all steps along the way—are central to the relationship between humanity and the natural world we are part of. The set of human practices that collectively constitute ‘agriculture’ have profoundly altered landscapes, changed the composition of waterways and influenced the stability of the Earth’s climate. While these alterations have taken place over millennia, their scale and pace of change in the past century has been unprecedented. We are only now beginning to understand these impacts.
Cognisant of the profound challenges faced in the basic sustainability and fairness of the global food system, Sustainable Development Goal 2 pledges to End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.
Cities and food production
Cities play a fundamentally important role in supporting and enabling the necessary transition to sustainable and equitable food systems in the 21st century. While most food is still produced in rural and regional areas, cities are important sites of food production. An estimated 800 million people worldwide are engaged in some form of urban agriculture, cities might currently produce as much as 20% of the world’s food requirements. The instance of Havana (Cuba) in the early 1990s and Rosario (Argentina) from 2001 onwards demonstrates how the effective mobilisation of productive resources and people can be harnessed to enable a city to generate a significant proportion of its own requirements of fruit and vegetables. While peri-urban zones near major cities are particularly conducive to productive market gardens, they often face the competing pressure from demands for land for residential development.
Sustainable food supply: quantity
Global messages conflict around the state of world food security. We often hear the refrain ‘the world must double food production by 2050’ to feed the estimated global population of 9 billion whose diets will be shaped around Western preferences for red meat, dairy and grains.
Alternately, once the volume of grains devoted to biofuel production and factory-fed animals are taken into account—with the fact that 40% of all food produced is wasted—we already produce enough food to feed 10 billion people. This has led international experts, notably the previous United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, to call for a ‘paradigm shift’ away from productivist and trade-focused food policies to an approach that foregrounds health, well-being and long-term environmental sustainability as the principal goals of global and national food systems.
At the same time, the stability of the world’s food supply cannot be taken for granted in an era of increasing climate volatility. Increased droughts and higher temperatures, together with more intense storms and rain events, will likely significantly impact food production capacity in many parts of the world. This reinforces the role for cities as both current and future sites of food production that can moderate the more extreme impacts of climate change whilst being close to secure access to water (e.g. through wastewater treatment plants).
Sustainable food supply: quality
The world has undergone a dramatic shift in dietary preferences since World War Two, to the point where we can now speak of an ‘ecological hoofprint’ as expressed through what Tony Weis calls the ‘industrial grain-oilseeed-livestock complex’ and the ‘meatification of diets’. One of the most dramatic consequences of this shift has been a trebling in rates of obesity across both the Global North and South, to the point where dietary-related diseases are now the biggest causes of mortality in many countries, and the numbers of people overweight and obese exceed those who are malnourished by some margin. Quite simply, for many of us, the food we eat is literally killing us. Apart from the public health crisis linked to diets, as much as 33-50% of all greenhouse gas emissions can be linked to a global food system increasingly based around vast grain monocultures and gargantuan factory farms. For reasons of health and well-being, as well as environmental sustainability, we urgently need to moderate our production and consumption of meat, and increase our production and consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Sustainable food supply: distribution and access
With 900 million people remaining malnourished globally, we come to question the inequities of distribution and access, which is fundamentally a question of wealth and poverty where those with purchasing power can access nutritious food and those without cannot. These are political and economic questions, rather than technical ones; and can be tackled through addressing what Olivier de Schutter terms ‘the democratic deficit’ in the global food system: the most important decisions made benefit only the most powerful economic actors.
Cities are already the major sites of food distribution and consumption, and with nearly 70% of the world’s population predicted to live in cities by 2050, their central role in the food system will only increase. Well-functioning logistics systems and markets within cities are vital for the ongoing viability of rural and regional producers and their surrounding communities.
The growing concentration of economic power has consequently seen a decline in the viability of small to medium-sized producers and smaller food wholesalers and retailers. As sites of creativity, innovation and experimentation, however, cities have the ability to develop and expand new, decentralized and more socially just market mechanisms.
Actions and responses
There is no single solution to this complex set of problems, but we can find lessons and inspiration through our common commitment to health, locally and globally, by building strong networks where learning is mutual and stories, experience and research are shared.
It is exciting to witness the resurgence of diverse forms of urban food production and the enhancement of aesthetics and culture of our urban landscapes. The burgeoning growth of famers markets, producer-consumer networks and community food programs are fostering relations of dignity and re-connection, building social capital and community resilience in the process. Government and businesses are developing procurement policies that favour local producers and short food supply chains. Many are embracing the challenge of the transition to a low and zero-carbon economy via waste reduction, nutrient recovery and recycling through composting initiatives at various levels. At a household level individuals and families are making more informed purchasing and consumption choices, thus reducing their environmental impact and supporting their local economy.
The transition towards sustainable and healthy food systems is a complex challenge that all cities face. It requires governments, the private sector and civil society to work together to design and create food systems with social justice, ecological integrity and economic sustainability that take into account their own histories, economic needs and social-cultural and environmental contexts.
The government can take leadership through legislation, regulation, planning and resourcing to create enabling environments for food system transitions to take place. In the cases of Rosario and Cuba, it was government foresight and leadership that established the frameworks, infrastructure and resources to empower local communities to take greater control over their food security. In Vancouver, Toronto and Barcelona, municipal and provincial governments have shown foresighted leadership by ensuring long-term food security through protecting their high-value agricultural hinterlands and preserving such territories for sustainable food production. Governments can support the development of food literate populations through school curricula that educate children and youth about the interconnected and cross-cutting nature of global and national food systems.
When addressing critical food security challenges there are certain fundamental steps that all governments should take as soon as possible:
- Publicly recognise and affirm their legal and moral obligations to guarantee the fundamental human right to adequate and culturally appropriate food for all persons living within their territories.
- Commit to the timely development of a comprehensive and participatory National Food and Nutrition Strategy that links production, security and nutrition, ensuring that the voices of the most marginalised and vulnerable members of all communities are heard and respected in this process.
- Commit to allocating sufficient financial and human resources to guarantee adequate food for all persons living within their territories.
The role of the private sector
To support the transition towards sustainable, resilient and socially just food systems the food industry should commit to entering into constructive dialogues with relevant food system stakeholders in the development of participatory and transparent national food strategies that link production, security and nutrition with critical environmental outcomes. Further, the food industry should acknowledge the central role it plays in affecting the health and wellbeing of all persons, and the impact its business operations have on the social and environmental sustainability of national and global food systems.
The role of civil society
Civil society can play a critical role in demonstrating innovation and creativity at the community level through social enterprises and volunteer initiatives such as food literacy programs in schools. Equally, members of civil society need to find their voices as ‘food citizens’, recognising, in the words of Olivier de Schutter, that ‘the biggest deficit in the food system is the democratic one; by harnessing people’s knowledge and building their needs and preferences into the design of ambitious food policies at every level, we [can] arrive at food systems that are built to endure.’
Author: Nick Rose
We encourage and welcome contribution of your city´s initiatives. List them as a Case study or a Commitment. Include them in your Communication on Engagement.
- MAIS IDH Action Plan
- Leading City Rotorua – Sustainable Living Strategy
- Community gardening in Maringá
- Food Security and Transformation – Medellin, Colombia
- A comprehensive approach to urban agriculture in Pinhais
- Social action for food and nutrition security in Paraná
- Democratizing, urbanizing and globalizing urban agriculture in the USA’s ‘Rust Belt’
- From innovation to sustainability in Milwaukee and Melbourne – urban aquaponics
- Urban agriculture systems – transforming the lives of people in informal settlements
- From Innovation to Sustainability: surviving five years as an urban aquaponics social enterprise