The role of cities in shaping Glocal food systems

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Cities as new food security actors

For decades, cities and agriculture have been bound to each other. However, with the transformation of food into a pure commodity – one of the most globally traded – cities have lost their position as key food security players. Citizens barely know where the food they eat comes from, and this has tremendous effects in terms of sustainability and ecological footprint. Despite this, cities are gradually recasting themselves as new crucial food security actors, offering new solutions to feed an increasingly growing urban population that is dangerously trying to emulate Westernized consumer patterns. This is particularly true for developing countries, where food riots have dramatically highlighted that food insecurity can become the channel through which other sources of resentment (i.e., poverty, unemployment, political marginalization) are expressed, turning into fierce anti-government demonstrations. A radical change and re-thinking of regional and national food systems that meet citizens’ food demands is essential to start a food revolution that manages to increase productivity without threatening ecosystems and biodiversity. On the one hand, cities are the place where the negative consequences of current unsustainable economic, social and environmental models will have to be faced. On the other hand, urban environments are the place where people will be able to see how achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can have a positive, tangible impact on their daily lives. This is particularly true for the food sector, where cities can become the pioneers of a new more sustainable, nutritious and just food system.

How can cities shape food systems?

Cities can shape food systems positively in several ways. First, urban planning is key to making the urban fabric evolve in a way that allows alternative food systems such as “urban gardens” or “farmers’ markets” to emerge and bridge the gap between producers and consumers. Second, cities can establish new institutional settings (i.e. food policy councils) and launch strategic documents (i.e. Urban Food Policies) whereby people and decision-makers at all levels can meet and foster innovative food networks. Third, global city alliances can foster this global quest for more sustainable and equitable food systems. In recent years, these networks have blossomed (e.g. EUROCITIES, C-40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact) at the regional and global level, offering important fora in which mayors and managers can meet and share lessons learnt and good practices. In addition, these networks develop mechanisms that protect them from electoral cycles and from mayors who are not willing to invest in sustainability. Fourth, cities can use green public procurement as an extraordinary lever to shape their food systems in a more sustainable way. A clear example are school canteens, where cities can be the drivers of more healthy and sustainable food systems that effectively integrate urban, peri-urban and rural agriculture. Finally, the fight against food losses and waste is another example. Cities can use normative (new regulations) and economic (taxes reductions) incentives, as well as education to reduce the unacceptable amount of food that is wasted every day.

The time is ripe for innovative Urban Food Policies.

Time is ripe to launch innovative food policies that address food from farm to landfill. These documents need to promote a circular approach, where food-related policies are fully in line with the activities taken in the field of energy transition, water management, climate change adaptation strategies and waste management.

Such a nexus-driven approach is very clear from the New Urban Agenda that acknowledges that food policies work in a synergic way with energy, water, health, transport and waste policies. In other words, as stated in the New European Consensus on Development cities are the laboratories where it is possible to launch an inclusive, equitable and climate-resilient development.

Giving food back the value it deserves

The EU can be a model for a global fight for more transparent, just and sustainable food system. This implies a change in the governance model as cities need to have a stronger role to implement all the policies agreed at the State level. It is paradoxical that despite of the fact that cities have progressively filled the gap left by States, they have suffered from a progressive decrease of financial resources. Giving them more powers can become a powerful tool to start up a new glocal food revolution based on a shorter food supply chain, seasonality and a closer link between producers and consumers.

Cities offer the most fertile soil where vibrant civil society groups can meet, share practices and promote alternative food networks which support small and medium local businesses, by protecting biodiversity. Citizens’ educations and empowerment at the design, implementation and monitoring stages is pivotal to win this battle. They are the place where SDGs can be effectively implemented, by re-connecting cities with the countryside and give food back the value it deserves.

Author: Daniele Fattibene

Photo courtesy Travis Wise via Flickr

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