By Alana Craigen and Katharina Davis, UNDP


Thailand Food Market. Photo: Liseth Cheng | Unsplash

A reflection on the occasion of #WorldCitiesDay

As we are entering the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the strength of our food supply chains is being put to a test. Again. How many of us, perhaps for the first time, have had to carefully budget food for a period of several months? The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of all participants along the food supply chain – from farmers, to processors and households.

This opens a window of opportunity for shifting our food system onto a more resilient, sustainable and circular pathway: One where food loss and waste are designed out of the system, food by-products are transformed and used at their highest value, and food production improves rather than degrades the environment.

This shift is urgent. Cities will be home to 66% of the global population and consume over 80% of the world’s food by 2050. In the meantime, one-third of the food produced for human consumption is being lost or wasted globally – an equivalent of 1.3 billion tonnes per year. This waste does not include the resources that went into producing it, such as land, water and energy. While cities will require us to as much as double food production over the next three decades, they also hold the key to unlocking the potential to not only satisfy this increased demand but also improve livelihoods, citizens’ health and the natural environment. A win-win.


Ideas for what cities can do to fight food loss and waste

There are a number of high-dividend actions that countries can take under the Paris Agreement to fight food loss and waste through circular action. Here, we would like to hone in on what cities can do to strengthen food security (and improve livelihoods) and how creating circular food systems can help achieve this:

  • Promote urban and peri-urban food production. Cities can increase their resilience to external shocks and help strengthen local and national food security by relying on a variety of producers (local, regional and global). Shorter food supply chains in turn help reduce unnecessary food loss due to storage and transportation inefficiencies, not to mention the associated distribution costs (and emissions) and excess plastic packaging. People will benefit as well. Locally-sourced, fresh and nutritious food will help contribute to healthy diets and well-being. Local food production is gaining momentum. Many of the world’s major cities are among the signatories of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, an international pact covering 210 cities and more than 450 million people, to create more sustainable and resilient urban food systems.

  • Rethink policies for land use and urban design. Cities can be advocates and enablers, making vacant city-owned lots available for farm leases, passing zoning ordonnances and launching programs to promote urban agriculture. In Paris, for example, a municipal initiative aims to cover rooftops and walls with 100 hectares of green space by 2020, a third of which is dedicated to food production. Singapore is even encouraging developers to include urban farms as part of green building requirements. In poorer countries, the agricultural heritage of many rural-urban migrants is helping cities improve food security. In Lusaka, Zambia, over half of urban residents grow their own food, while in Kampala, Uganda, and Yaounde, Cameroon, many urban households raise livestock including poultry, dairy cattle, and pigs. However, in many countries in Africa, urban agriculture is not part of official urban planning policies, and land tenure remains a major challenge for urban farmers.

  • Generate value from waste. Food loss and waste, which is costing us an estimated US $ 1 trillion every year (FAO) has the potential to create new income streams for local governments and businesses. A part of this economic loss could be recaptured by converting waste into sustainable agricultural inputs such as natural fertilizers or other high value products. Several cities in the United States, for instance, pulverize food scraps through in-sink garbage disposals, then turn the slurry into fertilizers and biogas to power buses and water treatment facilities. Sweet Benin, an innovative example from Benin, is working with TechnoServe to turn waste from cashew harvests into a new beverage industry and help cashew farmers supplement their off-season incomes. This large waste stream can be upcycled into safe, tasty and healthy products and ingredients that can work at large scale distribution.

  • Deploy digitalisation and data-driven urban farming approaches. With the intent of creating more adaptive and resilient food systems, better data can help us identify and understand our food’s journey or “waste” streams and determine how they can be captured and upcycled into other value-generating processes. During the pandemic, many cities, including those in China, shifted to online market places to connect small farmers with consumers, and to rescue and secure food as the traditional distribution tracks shut down. Tools such as the Food Loss and Waste Value Calculator can also equip cities and national governments with the knowledge to track how their efforts to prevent food loss and waste provide nutritional and environmental value.

These are just a few examples to provide inspiration and ideas. The current intersection of ongoing crises – public health, climate and economic - provide us with an incentive to seek transformational change solutions in our food systems. This is an opportunity that should not be missed. The World Cities Day gives us a chance to reflect on the pivotal role cities can play in reimagining the way we produce, distribute and consume food in a bid to help tackle food loss and waste and strengthen food security. Our current food system is no longer fit for the society and planetary needs of the 21st century – it is ripe for disruption and cities can lead the way.

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