Sowing the seeds of change: urban food policies

On my way to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) this morning I passed by a small food growing space set up by local residents. Onion leaves could be spotted popping out of the soil. Only a few inches away were the graffitied walls of the busy train station. Quite a contrast! But -- what does this have to do with urban food policy?

Urban food systems: problems and solutions

Cities are often the places where our food system’s dysfunctions are most glaring. We see undernutrition and obesity, huge food waste and food poverty, “foodie culture” and food deserts - all in the same city. These inequalities are often found in the same neighbourhoods, the same households and even the same people, says Nicolas Bricas, UNESCO World Food Systems Chair and Researcher at CIRAD.

But cities are also centres of innovation, where solutions can emerge. People have long grown food in cities - be it in community gardens in London neighbourhoods, or in urban agriculture in ancient Rome. Urban food growing can make people think critically about their relationship with food. So what is the missing link between growing vegetables with your neighbours and enacting wider food system change?

This morning’s event at the 43rd Committee on World Food Security would suggest the missing link is urban food policy. Prof. Corinna Hawkes, Director of the Food Policy Centre at City University is convinced of this: citizen engagement is high in urban areas, and provides fertile ground for successful urban food policies. But urban food policies don’t only affect cities, they can help solve national and global food system challenges. This is because food policies tend to work better when they are rooted in people’s needs.

Connecting small scale action to policy and system change

So what are the steps involved in moving from small-scale action like urban food growing to establishing an high-impact urban food policy, such as the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact?

This question is important to Florence Egal, Strategic Advisor for IUFN. “There is a lack of research on how to make concrete change happen at the city level”, she says. Municipalities find it hard to tackle food issues, so “they need to be accompanied in that process”. Civil society, local authorities and the private sector all need to work together to make progress. Cities also need to collaborate with regions, national governments and other cities abroad to share good practices.

It is clearly a challenging and tricky process. Ms. Egal and IUFN have been addressing how to overcome these institutional barriers for several years. They have come up with ways of ‘stirring up’ a critical mass for action:

  • Creating incentives for different stakeholders to get involved. In the Basque country, for example, it was a shared sense of territorial identity that brought conflicting organisations together.
  • Knowledge management. FAO played a key role in the success of the Milan Urban Food Policy. Bringing together good practices is an invaluable resource for others wishing to start similar processes.
  • Clear coordination responsibilities. In Montpellier, a key success factor was putting an elected member of local government in charge of the agroecology and food commission.

“We don’t need to invent something new - we just need to see what is working and translate it into policy”, says Ms. Egal.

Ultimately, though, it may be consumers who unlock change. Ms. Egal believes the key to fairer and more sustainable food systems is educating the public. Few will care about food policy if they do not understand its real-life effects.

The role of cities in challenging the food system’s shortcomings

The dominant food system does not provide adequate food to those who need it. Intensive agriculture is contributing to soil degradation and climate change, while agricultural workers earn very little to work in hazardous conditions. If people can become clear about where the problems lie, then they can push for change in their food system. Policy can be a powerful tool in creating a new system that benefits, rather than damages people.

Challenging food systems issues is a particularly hot topic in cities. Inequality, health and environmental degradation coexist in urban settings - but so do circular economy and food waste saving initiatives.

If we look closer, next time we pass by our local urban garden we just might find a part of the solution to our food system’s challenges. Urban food policies are what’s needed to scale up this change.

Blogpost by Isabella Coin, #CFS43 Social Reporter – isa.coin(at)

Photo Credit: Christos Barbalis on Unsplash

This post is part of the live coverage during the 43rd Session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). This post is written by one of our social reporters, and represents the author’s views only.



19/10/2016 12:05


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