Cities in search of sustainable food: 15 keys
Everyone’s future depends on the decisions that cities make today. These decisions will shape the future of food, the future of agriculture and the future of the relationship between cities and the rural world. It may seem an exaggeration, but the truth is that, in addition to being the centres where decisions are made, the places where innovation takes place and the points from which the great milestones of our culture are generated, the decisive role of cities is given by the fact that today they are home to more than half the world’s population. Yes, they barely represent 3% of the planet’s surface and yet more and more people, more and more families, are gathering around them in a perpetually accelerating process. Only thirty years ago, in 1990, there were 10 cities with more than 10 million inhabitants. The number had already risen to 28 by 2014 and, today, there are 31. According to UN data, by 2050 two thirds of the world’s population will be living in large cities.
Knowing that this urban overpopulation will be our reality in a few decades requires us all to assess the situation and plan how to address two key issues: how will we go about ensuring access to healthy food, and how will we act to make access to food and the sustainability of our planet compatible?
The challenge of reformulating food systems
Those of us who live in the most privileged areas of the planet are not fully aware of the scale of the challenge now facing us. This is because our societies have a very low natural growth rate and, although they are growing in population, they do so slowly because they are ageing. But we only have to look at sub-Saharan Africa, Asia or any of the cities located in developing regions to see that the pull of urban environments and high birth rates are a different reality that will impact us all. Because these cities are already showing worrying realities that we must address, which are inequality and poverty, nutritional problems and environmental sustainability issues.
How do we deal with all this? Experts propose a clear, forceful and ambitious approach: rethinking our way of feeding those who inhabit the cities. Corinna Hawkes, Professor of Food Policy at the City University of London, has been working for some time as the head of an academic team formulating alternatives to this situation and is emphatic in her statements. In an interview featured in the first issue of our Magazine, she said that “rethinking food systems to make them work better means questioning the way things are done today and the power of the system”. It is not exactly a question of setting the counter to zero, but of thoroughly reviewing the system that feeds us in order to redesign it and make it healthy for people and sustainable for the planet.
In this sense, the already well-known SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) proposed in 2013 by the UN, and summarised in 17 objectives and 169 targets, are the perfect framework for this review, as they include areas that citizens already consider fundamental priorities, such as attention to climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, justice and peace. And it is within this framework that the most aware administrations are developing policies and specific actions to promote sustainable urban food systems.
The 15 keys to a sustainable urban food system
What should a sustainable urban food system be? Basically, a system capable of meeting the food needs of the population without neglecting environmental and social sustainability. Or, to go back to Corinna Hawkes’ words, a system capable of delivering “positive outcomes in terms of nutrition, health, environmental sustainability, livelihoods, equitable economic development and social cohesion”.
Below are the 15 keys given to us by the experts. A guide that helps us to rethink the entire system:
- Improve the nutrition and health of city dwellers. This means providing all those people with healthy, safe and nutritionally valuable food, including a diet richer in fresh foods, more fruit and vegetables and less processed foods that are currently too prevalent because of their low price and accessibility.
- Promote social inclusion and equity. At present, large cities are growing in a profoundly unequal way, welcoming an extraordinarily rich elite and a large mass of underprivileged families fighting against hunger, unemployment and lack of resources in very close proximity.
- Promote the participation of all stakeholders involved in urban food, which means involving administrations, social agents, food producers (large and small) and the large distribution industry.
- Protect the most vulnerable population groups by specifically helping them to achieve a healthy diet that will help them to develop well in all personal and social areas.
- Strengthen the relationship between the urban and rural worlds by realising that, although at first glance they seem different, city and countryside are part of the same food and economic system. Because food flows from rural to urban areas, but could be produced in both areas, too.
- Design responsible and inclusive public procurement policies that take into account not only the selling price, but other costs that often remain hidden, especially social and environmental costs.
- Reduce food waste by reviewing the entire value chain, from the selection of food simply by its external appearance, to the shelf life at the point of sale and through the logistics chain.
- Adapt food management to the reality of climate change, bearing in mind that extreme and unpredictable weather events can seriously jeopardise access to food for a large part of humanity. This will require major changes in agriculture and eating habits that need to be anticipated now.
- Promote gender policies that support women and families, since these population groups are the undisputed protagonists of food systems throughout the planet. In fact, we have much to learn from the adaptability, resilience, collaboration and ingenuity that women show in feeding their families.
- Recognise the role of medium-sized cities and towns in creating good food systems, as they are key to food production and distribution, enable the integration of small businesses, protect ecosystems and promote sustainable resource management.
- Improve logistics and distribution, because all post-harvest improvements contribute significantly to reducing losses, lowering costs for the buyer.
- Promote local markets, because they improve the diversity and quality of the fresh food supply that reaches consuming families and minimise waste.
- Protect those who produce on small plots of land, as these farming families are essential if we are to increase the amount of food available. It should be noted that such farms currently supply up to 70% of the world’s food, yet these people remain food insecure and malnourished and have difficulty accessing markets and making reasonable profits from their work.
- Improve the situation of peripheral neighbourhoods, many of which were born when the population grew faster than the city itself until they became marginal and vulnerable spaces. In the face of this reality, rethinking food systems can help improve land use, eliminate waste and combat climate change.
- Increase interaction between metropolitan areas and the surrounding landscapes that provide them with food, promoting collaboration between them and encouraging more sustainable and fairer urbanisation processes and promoting inclusive economic development.
Looking forward to a better future in smart cities
For a few years, the term “smart” was applied exclusively to systems that incorporated digital technology into their operation. Today, we look back at the original meaning of the word and give it a broader meaning when we talk about “smart cities”, as this term identifies cities capable of improving the quality of life of their inhabitants with the help of digital technology and communications; cities that take into account the environment, social needs and economic development; that naturally incorporate citizen participation, energy saving and environmentally friendly transport. This should be the case for all cities in the immediate future, but especially for large urban centres.
In this context, FAO has launched its Green Cities Initiative to help, from an integrated approach, to carry out urban and peri-urban planning capable of improving life inside cities, but also of improving the quality of green fields and spaces, promoting sustainable practices and technologies and making sustainable and inclusive urban food systems a reality.