20 Feb, 2020

Cities can change for better our food system

by Food&Migration

Cities represent a key part of our world. Between 1900 and 2015, the percentage of the global population living in conurbations grew from 14 to 54 percent. A number that is expected to grow up to 68 percent by 2050, when 2.5 billion people will be living in major urban centres – especially in Africa and Asia. 

This will also lead to an exponential increase in the number of people resident in degraded areas and potentially food insecure. As of today, towns consume 75 percent of the planet’s natural resources and have generated 1.3 billion tons of solid urban waste only in 2012. They consume 80 percent of the global energy supply and by 2050 will wear out 80 percent of the food produce on Earth. 

For all these reasons, feeding cities sustainably will become on of the biggest priority for our future. A challenge linked to already existing issues, such as providing food access to all, ensuring proper healthcare conditions and fighting climate change. 

The demographic and social transformation that we are witnessing and that we will encounter increasingly more means that city businesses and local governments will be ideally placed to manage this extraordinary phenomena. Shaping new urban food policies to influence the kind of food that enters a city, or how and where it is produced. 

Cities can thus become a catalyst in changing for the better our food system. But seeking a new development model for out towns means also imagining a new one for the entire planet. 
Several cities are already gearing up to meet the challenge, adopting for instance tax incentives and regulations aimed at promoting responsible consumption patterns. Here are some examples.

In 2014, Milan has set up its own food policy, with ad hoc administrative offices in charge of planning all the policies that impact the food supply for Italy’s business hub. Toronto was at the forefront in this sector, establishing a food council back in 1991 aimed at managing food policies. In the meantime, Paris is building the larges rooftop urban farm in the world, with 14 thousand square meters dedicated to the cultivation of fruit and vegetables. Similar sites can be found also in the Hague, Detroit and Shanghai – among others. 

And while Denmark’s Copenhagen has set a target of reducing emissions related to food served in canteens by 25 percent, London has restricted advertising of high-fat foods, sugar and salt on public transports to try to counter childhood obesity. 

All this shows that the challenge of feeding growing numbers of urban residents with new and sustainable solutions has now begun. Within this context, circular economy may prove to be a tremendous trump card. It provides a vision for the food system fit for the future and for the needs of tomorrow in the face of our current food system, which no longer works.

Although it supported a fast-growing population and fuelled unprecedented economic development, it gave origin also to marked imbalances that put in jeopardy the future of the human race. Just to name a few:

  • Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tons — gets lost or wasted, while 10% of the global population continues to go hungry;
  • Food losses and waste amounts to roughly US$ 680 billion in industrialized countries and US$ 310 billion in developing countries;
  • Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tons) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons);
  • Intensive agricultural practices contribute to the 39 million hectares of soil that are degraded each year globally (roughly the size of Zimbabwe) and places demand on approximately 70% of global freshwater.

On the contrary, circular economy for food simulates natural systems of regeneration of lower wastefulness and promises to increase social responsibility towards the environment. And since 80 percent of food will be consumed by urban areas by 2050, no one better that cities will be able to lead this cultural and physical revolution. 

At stake there’s the possibility of shaping a new system in which nature is regenerated rather than degraded by humans, people get healthier supplies produced locally and seasonally and the very idea of waste if finally questioned, for instance converting organic waste into a source of value aimed at driving food production.

It’s about a tectonic shift in people’ relationship with food, which promises to guarantee extremely relevant benefits to all. It is estimated that on the economic level, the adoption of soil regenerative practices might generate annual benefits worth USD 2.7 trillion by 2050. In terms of environment protection, up to 15 million hectares of arable land per year might be preserved from degradation – saving 450 trillion litres of fresh water. Finally, in terms of healthcare, the health costs associated with pesticide would be lowered by USD 550 billion, with significant reductions of air pollution, water contamination and foodborne diseases.