Food for the cities programme

How sustainable green urban farms support the local food system in response to COVID-19

A case study of Chongming island, Shanghai, China


Photo credit: Shanghai Chongming district agriculture and rural committee

By Shanghai Chongming Eco-Agriculture Science and Technology Innovation Center


Shanghai is the largest city in China with a population of over 24 million and one of the most important international hubs. As of 1 November 2020, Shanghai has a total of 1 187 confirmed cases of COVID-19, of which 845 are imported cases from abroad, and 342 locally confirmed cases.

Since January 2020, Shanghai has adopted various measures to improve the local agricultural production and food system. In the press conference held on 24 June 2020[1], Shanghai municipal government gave an overview introduction of the city’s food supply system  summarized here below:

1) Vegetable supply. The vegetable wholesale volume in Shanghai stabilized at around 9 000 tons/day. There were 127 extraterritorial vegetable production sites closely connected to major wholesale markets, from provinces such as Hainan, Yunnan, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shandong, and Ningxia. A large number of production sites ensures that residents in Shanghai can consume seasonal vegetables from different production areas throughout the year. Since summer, cabbage, lettuce, and tomatoes produced from the sites in Gansu, Ningxia, Hebei, and other provinces has been continuously supplying to Shanghai’s markets. In addition to ensuring a sufficient supply of main conventional varieties, the Shanghai Vegetable Group also organized seasonal vegetables, such as bok choy, water spinach and lettuce, supplied from Zhejiang, Hunan, and other provinces. 

2) Pork meat supply. To better meet the increasing   demand, the main pork wholesale markets in Shanghai have organized major wholesalers to establish long-term and stable supply and marketing relationships with 16 major meat production areas in China, including provinces of Shandong, Hebei, and Heilongjiang. The main wholesale market in Shanghai can supply about 10 000 pigs per day.

3) Other food supply chain. Retail companies such as major supermarkets and fresh food e-commerce enterprises in Shanghai also took their distribution channel advantages to ensure the non-staple food supply. Large-scale supermarket chains ensured a stable supply of major consumer products such as meat, poultry, eggs, vegetables, fruits, grains and oils; new e-commerce retail companies also provided guarantees for the supply of beef and mutton, aquatic products and green leafy vegetables. 

Case Study on Sustainable Green Urban Farm in Chongming Island of Shanghai

The Chongming island covers 1 267 km2 with a population of 6 760 00. It is the largest alluvial island in the world and the third largest island in China. The major ecosystems on Chongming Island are polder systems and natural wetland ecosystems, including the Chongming Dongtan nature reserve, which is recognized in the list of wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.   With the largest agricultural production area and the richest ecological environment in Shanghai, Chongming island possesses unique geographical and ecological advantages for agricultural development. The island holds 25 percent of Shanghai’s rural areas, a quarter of Shanghai’s forest areas and provides 1/7 of vegetable and grain production. For rice, Chongming accounts for 22 percent of the total rice production of Shanghai. In this context, the Shanghai municipal government requires the Chongming island to conduct rapid response measures through urban farms to ensure the stable supply of local food during the COVID-19 pandemic and the development of sustainable green agriculture in post-COVID-19.

Shanghai took necessary actions responding to the COVID-19 pandemic facing severe food system pressure. At the beginning of the pandemic, Shanghai established public health emergency mechanisms and implemented the most stringent scientific prevention and control measures. The current confirmed cases are dominated by imported cases, but Shanghai still implements strict preventive and control measures to avoid further spread.

Under this context, the government of Chongming district insisted on promoting the development of green agriculture[2], quickly adopted pandemic response measures and mobilized the production capacity of urban farms. This was done in order to establish high-ecological standard agricultural production sites around the city to reduce the pressure of production, supply, transportation and preservation of food and agricultural products among cities in Yangtze river delta region, and to enhance the resilience and stability of the urban food system against risks.

1. Emergency policies to ensure stable vegetable production and supply

In order to solve the market issues of agricultural products and strictly prevent the transmission of COVID-19, virus under the Shanghai municipal government’s coordination, the Chongming district has set up a designated transaction point for agricultural products from other provinces. During the lockdown, inter-provincial transactions of agricultural products such as cauliflower and asparagus were requested to enter this designated transaction point. Through this operation, Chongming strengthened the capacity to manage vehicles and personnel from other provinces, strengthened pandemic prevention control, standardized transaction behavior, and strictly prevented the COVID-19 transmission risk caused by cross-provincial transactions.

Before planting rice, the Chongming district actively organized vegetable production sites in urban farms to speed up vegetable production, to ensure that production is not interrupted, and to secure stable supply and prices. To date, the large-scale vegetable sites and large producers in the whole district have resumed production. In April, the district was able to guarantee a stable volume of green leafy vegetables of about 530 tons per day.

In terms of technical guidance, combined with the characteristics of winter and spring vegetable production, Chongming's agricultural authority organized various vegetable production sites to arrange planting plans, to urgently plant fast-growing vegetables such as spinach, Chinese cabbage, and brassica rapa. During the restriction period  , more than 600 people from the Chongming vegetable technical department actively provided technical guidance and technical support to vegetable production enterprises, urban farms and individuals, through online channel and field visits.

In order to increase policy support, Chongming implemented relevant policies to stabilize vegetable production and supply during the pandemic prevention and control period. First, a two-level (city and district) insurance policy on vegetable prices was launched, to encourage urban farms to plant leafy green vegetables. Second, policies on the use of green manure were established, to organize urban farms to quickly sow and plant vegetables. Third, policies on logistics and distribution subsidies were implemented to encourage agricultural business entities and urban farms to increase home delivery services.

2. Development of Local Sustainable Agriculture and Food System   

The COVID-19 pandemic poses challenges to urban food systems around the world, especially in the food production process. Encouraging and promoting the sustainable production of local food and the development of green agriculture have become the focus of consideration by city managers.

The FAO policy briefs, such as “Urban food systems and COVID-19: The role of cities and local governments in responding to the emergency” issued on 8 April 2020 , “Cities and local governments at the forefront in building inclusive and resilient food systems” released on 20 July , and “COVID-19 and the role of local food production in building more resilient local food systems ” released on 18 September, proposed that the development of local food production can strengthen the diversified channels of food supply, and enhance the ability of cities to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, so it is necessary to establish a more sustainable and flexible urban food system.

The COVID-19 pandemic offers countries an opportunity to build recovery plans that will reverse current trends and change current consumption and production patterns towards a more sustainable future. Sustainable consumption and production can contribute substantially to poverty alleviation and the transition towards low-carbon and green economies. At this point, Shanghai has established sustainable agricultural standards   to enhance sustainable agricultural production capacity and improve its abilities and resilience to respond to various risks, such as climate change, COVID-19, etc.

According to the “China Agricultural Green Development Report 2019”, Chongming island is one of the 20 national agricultural green pioneer areas in China, leading its development. The green food certification rate in the whole region reaches 87 percent and will reach 90 percent in 2020. In this context, the government of Chongming released its Sustainable Green Rice standard based on China’s Green Food Standard with support from FAO’s Technical Cooperation Programme project (TCP/CPR/3702)[3].

The Sustainable Green Rice standard (Annex 1) is a nationally recognized community standard registered and managed by the Shanghai Chongming Green Food Production and Marketing Federation, which contains good practices and technical specifications from the FAO TCP project for local rice production in Chongming. It can also provide a general standard framework to support sustainability and voluntary guidelines of “non-chemical synthetic pesticides and fertilizers” in agricultural supply chains (in particular rice) for developing countries.

The “Sustainable Green Rice” project is a pioneering project of Chongming’s sustainable green agricultural production system. Therefore, the local government has also provided a counterpart project in setting up the standard and certification system of “Sustainable Green Rice”, to support the implementation of the FAO TCP project.

The Sustainable Green Rice development not only meets the daily staple food needs of Shanghai residents but also played a key role during the pandemic, effectively organizing the sustainable agricultural production of urban farms and ensuring the stable operation of Shanghai’s local food system.

The transformation of food systems through responsible consumption and production is the core of objective 12 in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The emphasis on China Green Food   standards and certification show the commitment to the quality of agricultural products by the local government of Chongming island. While the China Green Food standard: Rice addressed a controlled and reduced use of pesticides together with a testing regime for pesticide residues, the sustainable green agriculture standards and certification increase additional commitments to sustainable development components, such as ecological environment, biodiversity, management of natural resources and employee welfare, etc., and request more strict conditions on use of pesticides and fertilizers – only biopesticides and biological fertilizer are allowed to sell and use on the island.

Urban farms are the main actors that adopt the voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) of sustainable green agriculture and have made corresponding “promises” to the requirements of the standard (Le Velly, 2017). The value embodied in these responsible production commitments will also be reflected in values shared by consumers, which is the responsible consumption. These responsible consumers that support the development of urban farms may include (1) consumer-citizens resident in the area where the labeled products originate, with their own purchasing networks and forms of organization; (2) other consumers who purchase certified agricultural products through commodity channels outside of original areas; and (3) tourists who take responsibility for sustainable development in the process of agrotourism consumption. 

For consumers of certificated agricultural products, responsible production and consumption can not only balance the development and protection of natural resources in production areas but also ensure the quality and food safety of agricultural products. For agrotourism consumers, urban farms voluntarily adopting and certifying the sustainable green agriculture production method can minimize the safety risk of pollution from agricultural inputs during travel into urban farms, as well as health risks of being infected in the COVID-19 pandemic.


The implementation of COVID-19 quick control measures and its impact on economic and social order restoring in China, may provide other countries and regions, in particular islands and estuary areas, with experience on how to develop agriculture while avoiding epidemic outbreak, as well as on how to increase the urban food system resilience during and after COVID-19. As one of the biggest cities in the world, how to feed local citizens sustainably, together with the challenges of highly dependent on import vegetable and non-staple food, urge Shanghai to take innovative and resilient actions to increase food security and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, the measures are taken by Shanghai shows that urban farming plays important roles in local food systems during the COVID-19 pandemic and post COVID-19 period:

  • Ensuring the supply of agricultural products from the local food system and encouraging urban farms to continue ecological farming practices (e.g., China’s Green Food) have significance to the stability of the urban food system and citizens’ livelihood. Shanghai has formulated strategic systems and plans in terms of the integrated policy, financial support and technological innovation to enable the urban farms since the emergence began.
  • Although at the beginning of lockdown, it is difficult to maintain high-ecological-standard for urban farming practices, Shanghai implemented rapid reactions in urban farms to recover the high-quality production standards in the later stage of COVID-19, to alleviate local demand gaps and reduce the pressure on the production, supply, transportation and storage of agri-food products between cities in the Yangtze river delta region, and to enhance resilience against the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic.
  • In particular for Chongming island, its experience resulted in the below lessons learned for the island developing states :

              -keep the supply of food flowing with the outside – required to maintain open trade and logistic chain;
              -scale up support to the local smallholder farmers – ensure access to nutritious, affordable food from agriculture, aquaculture and fishery for all; and 
              -invest in long-term sustainable and resilient food systems – sow seeds of recovery for the local people and urban-rural areas.

  • The experience of Shanghai Chongming also shows the process of adhering to the development of sustainable ecological agriculture should not be interrupted by the COVID-19 or any other crisis, because this plays an important role in the quick resilience of the city and regional food systems in post COVID-19 period, mainly reflected in the followings:

              -From a food security point of view, a more sustainable agricultural production model and standard systems, can continually provide metropolitan cities, like Shanghai, with alternative, affordable and accessible nutritious foods, enhance brand value, and ensure food security and nutrition.

              -From One health point of view, by reducing the risk of chemical substances in agricultural production, protect the wetland and estuary ecosystems, as well as biodiversity (in particular for the Ramsar wetland nature reserve on the island), to reduce the chance of contact with wild animals (birds and bats, etc.) and the risk of spreading zoonotic diseases; and

              -From an environmental point of view, by reducing the impacts of agricultural production on the environment to promote the development of sustainable and safe agritourism, in order to quickly increase other incomes of farmers and enhance the resilience of rural communities systems in post COVID-19 period. For example, during the Chinese National Day holidays in the first week of October, Chongming island received a total of 515 100 tourists, saw year-on-year rises of 285 percent.

In a nutshell, to cope with shocks such as COVID-19, megacities, like Shanghai, with suitable socio-economic and agroclimatic conditions, should adopt policies and programmes to enable local producers to grow high-ecological-standard food, and promote short food chains to support urban citizens to access food products. Shanghai has diversified its food supplies and food sources, reinforcing local sources where possible, but without shutting off national and global supplies.



[1] (In Chinese)

[2] China's Green Agriculture refers to the agricultural production and operation mode that focuses on the production, processing and sales of Green Food. Green Food is a Chinese eco-certification scheme for food. It certifies both the production process and the outcome. Green Food is produced with a controlled and reduced use of pesticides, together with a testing regime for pesticide residues.

[3] TCP/CPR/3702 – Agricultural Technology Integration and Demonstration for Green Rice Development in Chongming island, Shanghai.



Sustainable Rice Agriculture Standard of No-Chemical Synthetic Pesticides and Fertilizers: Sustainable Green Rice (Draft,2020), FAO, Regional Office for Asia and Pacific

Koohafkan Parviz, Altieri Miguel A. Forgotten Agricultural Heritage: Reconnecting food systems and sustainable development 1st Edition, Earthscan Food and Agriculture series, 2017, London UK  

Koohafkan, Parviz Furtado Jose, Traditional rice-fish systems as globally important ingenious agricultural heritage systems, International Rice Commission. Newsletter 53, 66-73, 2004, FAO, Rome, Italy

Koohafkan, Parviz Altieri, Miguel A.  Holt Gimenez, Eric Green Agriculture: foundations for biodiverse, resilient and productive agricultural systems, in International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 2011

Pursuing Rice Agroecology, The APCO Model, Food and agriculture organization of the united nations Rome, FAO 2011,

Luo Shiming, Agroecological rice production in china: restoring biological interactions, Food and agriculture organization of the united nations Rome, 2018

Urban food systems and COVID-19: The role of cities and local governments in responding to the emergency, FAO 2020,

Cities and local governments at the forefront in building inclusive and resilient food systems, FAO 2020,

COVID-19 and the role of local food production in building more resilient local food systems, FAO 2020.

Annex: Sustainable Agriculture Standard of no-chemical synthetic pesticides and fertilizers-Rice