Greener cities, resilient food systems

Can COVID-19 be the catalyst needed to transform urban food systems?

Urban areas are growing fast. FAO is partnering with cities around the world to establish better food systems and greener growth. ©jamesteohart/


You would hardly call most urban areas green, either in looks or in actions, but FAO is partnering with cities around the world, in a new Green Cities initiative, to make them so.   

The world’s cities are growing rapidly. Today, 55 percent of the global population lives in urban areas, and this number is expected to rise to 68 percent by 2050. Cities already use almost 80 percent of the total energy produced in the world and consume up to 70 percent of the food supply. 

It is clear why meeting the nutritional needs of these growing urban populations is more and more difficult – and this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder. Cities have had to meet new challenges including ensuring access to safe, nutritious and affordable food even with restricted movements and closed markets. 

However, disruptions to the norm also create room for opportunities and longer-term transformation. FAO’s Green Cities initiative supports local and national governments, building their capacities to create sustainable cities and food systems. The aim is to strengthen the resilience of urban food systems and promote healthy diets in at least 100 cities, improving the livelihoods and well-being of urban and peri-urban populations. 

So how can we strengthen the resilience of food systems in cities? 

1) Use digital innovation to improve food supply chains 

Innovation is a powerful force, and resilient food systems must harness it. This means adopting digital solutions, such as online platforms for e-commerce or delivery services. 

In Muscat, Oman, social distancing due to COVID-19 forced their Central Fish Market to innovate. Vendors created an online platform to allow fisherfolk and wholesalers to maintain an income even when markets were closed. The market workers now upload photos and details of the catch to the online platform, where wholesalers, retailers and restaurants can view the daily offer and place their orders through an online auction. Young agripreneurs around the world have also creatively taken advantage of digital innovation, by switching to online orders, marketing through social media and accepting mobile payments.

The pandemic has forced people to reconceptualise the way they run their businesses, but these greener, digital solutions can offer longer-term benefits.

The recovery from the pandemic is the opportunity to transform our food systems and green our cities. Left: ©FAO/Ami Vitale Right: ©FAO/Joan Manuel Baliellas

2) Ensure food safety and nutritional quality of diets 

Nutrition in cities often takes a back seat to pace of life and convenience. Obesity is on the rise all over the world, but tackling it in our growing cities is crucial. The issue needs to be addressed from multiple angles, including providing nutrition education to consumers but equally important, building the capacity of supply chains to deliver more nutritious, safe foods.   

One city addressing this challenge of getting nutritious foods to cities during the pandemic is Montevideo, Uruguay where citizens and local organizations have implemented ollas populares, a traditional model of home deliveries of food, fruits and vegetables often directly from producers to consumers. In another case, farmers in Peru sent nutritious, traditional food to loved ones living in the country’s largest cities. Reinforcing these rural-urban linkages is important to making cities truly green. 

3) Reduce food loss and waste 

Cities produce the vast majority of global waste: 70 percent in fact. Food loss and waste is particularly concerning as it entails a waste not only of viable source of nutrition, it is also a waste of the natural resources that go into making it.

Through promoting responsible food purchasing behaviour, creating efficient ways of distributing food and using innovative solutions, we can reduce food loss and waste.

The municipality of Chía in Colombia, for example, found a digital solution to food waste during the COVID-19 pandemic. They created an online platform for those wanting to donate non-perishable food, connecting products with people, without leaving their homes.

4) Strengthen agri-food businesses 

Strengthening the links with the private sector along food value chains can help create sustainable business models and boost cooperation, increasing the resilience of the sector. 

In Milan, the municipal government worked with the private sector as well as a non-governmental organization during the pandemic to develop a “Food Aid System” that ensured elderly and vulnerable people had continued access to fresh food during lockdown. The service used the logistics centre of the Banco Alimentare della Lombardia andItalian Red Cross to store food, beforedistributing it weekly to 10 local hubs in Milan. Volunteers then prepared food parcels for over 4 900 families in need. These alliances build off of the respective strengths of various entities to produce better results.

5) Encourage investment in green food value chains 

A good place to start in making our urban food systems more sustainable is greening food value chains and encouraging related investments. For example, offering financial tools that incentivise the adoption of sustainable practices, energy efficient technology or training on climate-resilient practices can make a big difference in reducing the carbon footprint of the agri-food sector, particular urban food systems.

Some cities have already begun investing in these changes by transforming their ports into “Blue Ports”. This initiative focuses on conserving marine resources and the environment, while also improving the labour conditions and livelihoods of those who depend on the port. Vigo, Spain is one of the cities that has adopted and invested in this initiative. FAO is working with other ports around the world to promote this practice.

In Santiago, Chile, the main wholesale market has adapted to the pandemic’s restrictions and is working to keep stallholders and buyers safe. ©FAO/Max Valencia

6) Improving policy

Food governance and policies are vital at all levels, from local to international. This is why FAO’s Green Cities Initiative is working with mayors from around the world to encourage the sharing of ideas and strategies, ultimately informing policy decisions. At the launch event on 18 September 2020, mayors from six cities gave testimonials on what has worked in their municipalities. In this way, cities from around the world can learn from each other as we move towards a globally green society. 

The COVID-19 pandemic had a huge effect on many cities across the world and the people living in them. In a matter of weeks, the availability, accessibility and affordability of basic foods changed drastically – strongly impacting the food security and nutrition of urban populations. The Green Cities initiative is just one element of the FAO COVID-19 recovery and response programme, helping to ensure that our food systems, particularly urban ones, are stronger and more resilient to other shocks. The recovery from the pandemic is the opportunity to transform our food systems and green our cities – building back better for the future. 

Learn more

2. Zero hunger, 11. Sustainable cities, 15. Life on land, 17. Partnership for the goals