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Urban Food Systems Take Centre Stage the 17th Annual Session of Global Forum on Human Settlements

FAO held a High-Level Dialogue on Sustainable Urban Food Systems for SDG Acceleration at the GFHS, December 2022

©FAO/Giuseppe Bizzarri


“Urban food systems will be indispensable for accelerating the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement on climate change,” stressed the Chief Economist of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Máximo Torero, who spoke at the 17th Annual Session of Global Forum on Human Settlements (GFHS 2022). The event, held in virtual format on 15-16 December 2022, under the theme being “Together for a shared safer and greener urban future: resilient, carbon neutral and nature-positive cities,” put the transformation of agrifood systems in the spotlight as a key driver in feeding the world’s rapidly growing urban population.


The event spanned two days, where thousands of professionals tuned in through live streaming and remote participation from more than 50 countries. These guests heard expertise from the over 80 individuals who contributed to the Forum, including heads of international organizations, senior government officials, mayors of leading cities, renowned experts and scholars and well-known business leaders. In addition,24 leading organizations joined GFHS 2022 as co-organizers and collaborators, including ten major UN agencies, such as FAO, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), United Nations Economic and Social Commission in Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).


Many exciting topics concerning building better urban spaces were discussed so that scientific and policy-oriented solutions could be identified and recommended for sustainable development practices and innovations for greener and healthier cities. These topics ranged from nature-positive cities to using BioPlastics to how climate films can be a tool to raise public awareness. However, the relationship between urban and rural, a vital connection for agrifood systems, was present in most conversations throughout the event.


Simon Stiell, the Executive Secretary of The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), reminded in his opening remarks that, “We need to be mindful of the complex transformation that is needed when it comes to rural-urban coexistence, particularly in how we take a more holistic approach towards human wellbeing and conservation of natural ecosystems. As we enter the new phase of implementation of the climate change agenda, we need to ensure that the solutions we consider are reflective of the complexities and demands of addressing different aspects of human settlements.”


The coexistence of rural, peri-urban and urban spaces has been an emphasis for FAO and their approach to transforming agrifood systems. The FAO Framework for the Urban Food Agenda, launched in 2019 as an innovative and crucial entry point for achieving sustainable urban and rural development, supports local and national governments in developing sustainable urban and local food policies, plans and actions. In this regard, FAO is increasingly prioritizing urban food systems and the role of local governments, as well as other local stakeholders, such as the private sector, in achieving sustainable food systems transformation. By recognizing cities as key players in food systems transformation, the Urban Food Agenda aims to enhance sustainable development, food security and improved nutrition in urban and peri-urban areas and nearby rural spaces. In addition, the FAO Green Cities Initiative, which began in 2020, focuses on improving the urban environment, strengthening urban-rural linkages and ensuring access to healthy diets from sustainable agrifood systems.


In partnership with UN agencies and international and local stakeholders, FAO aims to break down the rural-urban divide and promote sustainable food-system thinking. Facilitating the establishment of multi-stakeholders and multilevel food governance mechanisms (e.g., food policy councils, food labs or similar mechanisms) is at the center of the FAO’s urban food agenda approach. It supports policy design and planning through effective food governance mechanisms that mobilize actors at all levels. For this purpose, a Coalition on Urban Food Systems was established during the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit. FAO and other international government organizations, along with academia, civil society, and city associations, are co-leading the Coalition, which aims to facilitate coherent and coordinated engagement, action and governance among national and local government stakeholders. The Coalition will be officially launched in 2023.


In opening the event, Stefanos Fotiou, Director Office of Sustainable Development Goals (OSG), FAO, pointed to both of these initiatives and expanded further on how critical urban food systems are for meeting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Global Sustainable Development Report of 2019, which supports policymakersin achieving the SDGs by providing evidence-based instruments to implement change, lists six entry points for transformations and improving the role of science in implementation, which include food systems and nutrition patterns and urban and peri-urban development. In the face of rapid urbanization in many parts of the world, it is absolutely not possible to meet the 2023 Agenda without addressing food system dynamics in urban areas and their implications for urban and rural wellbeing.

Fotiou also carefully addressed the complex interactions between the SDGs. The food and agricultural sectors are largely responsible for GHG emissions and biodiversity loss, so simply scaling up production as-is is not an option. Instead, pathways must be unearthed to address possible tradeoffs between increasing production and expanding processing and distribution systems on one hand and resource and environmental concerns on the other.


FAO’s High-Level Dialogue at GFHS2022, Sustainable Urban Food Systems for SDGs Acceleration

As the global population passed the eight billion mark just last month, over one billion people are already living in overcrowded settlements, and food insecurity and malnutrition among expanding urban populations are on the rise, especially in low- and lower-middle-income countries, a conversation on the importance of urban agrifood systems and their interaction with the environment, society and economy could not come at a more meaningful time. Therefore, FAO held a High-Level Dialogue, Sustainable Urban Food Systems for SDGs Acceleration, at the GFHS 2022, dedicated to unpacking these complex relationships with critical inputs from renowned specialists in sustainable urban food systems.

Kostas G. Stamoulis, Senior Advisor in FAO on issues of food security, urban and territorial development and food systems transformation, moderated the Dialogue. Stamoulis spoke about the emerging rural-urban continuums he sees as a critical development for supporting sustainable food systems transformation facets of the future. These facets include links between the components of food systems – from production to consumer, the fading distinction between rural and urban and the growing importance of small cities and towns for agrifood systems.

In facilitating the discussion, he challenged panelists on whether a short supply chain (i.e., sourcing close to urban centers) is genuinely better for the environment. Roberta Sonnino, Professor of Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Surrey, was quick to point out that while shortening the supply chain can work for some cities, it is not possible for all cities, therefore when planning for urban food system transformations, it is essential always to support localization and tailor make pathways suitable to address each unique location’s challenges and opportunities.

Sonnino also discussed what cities are doing to improve urban food consumption and mitigate climate change. She pointed to two policy triggers with proven track records of implementing long-lasting change. The first instrument is public food procurement policy that connects healthy diets and decarbonization. The second instrument is food-sensitive planning frameworks that allow for innovations like cultivating land for urban farms. However, Sonnino warned that there are still obstacles, primarily rooted in fragmentation at the vertical and horizontal government scales and stressed that cities alone cannot make all the changes needed but require support from national and regional governments to ensure strong trade agreements and robust data.


Milan, Italy, is an excellent example of a city working against this type of fragmentation. They have proven their political commitment by establishing a Food Policy Unit, which since 2014 has confirmed 249 local partners. Andrea Magarini, Milan’s Director of the Food Policy Department, said that Milan addressed some of this fragmentation by engaging all the other municipal Departments to combine efforts on food systems for better integration and a comprehensive food policy in the city. Magarini stated that food policy budgeting is the next generation of activities for Milan to manage public food services, implement infrastructure that supports their partners (i.e., improving access to water for local farmers) and obtains more substantial data to support policy making.


Next, the Dialogue heard from Shulang Fei, a Research Scientist at the Institute of Urban Agriculture, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, China, who spoke on how agrifood systems transformations impact Chengdu, a Chinese megacity. Fei sees multiple positive dimensions for integrating food systems into urban planning. These include a more stable and local food supply, economic development, particularly through technological innovation, environmental contributions through shorter supply chains and social transformation through healthier diets. Moreover, she pointed to the need for solid planning to make changes like this effective, which requires mapping and data.


Jane Battersby, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Cape Town, closed the discussion by bringing the African perspective to the table, where there is exponential urban growth in secondary cities. While these booming urban centers are smaller than the megacities of Asia and do not have long-standing established food systems, like the cities of Europe, African cities, particularly secondary cities, face different challenges as food system interventions are not systematically planned and are characterized by the dominance of the informal sector. This has created a unique situation where, for instance, the supermarket revolution has not taken off, and it is unclear if it ever will. Instead, it is believed that many African cities will rely on the informal sector for sales to trade and supply chains. This prevalence of informality is shaping the food systems and related labour opportunities and connections to basic services, making feeding their growing population a critical challenge, however often ignored in politics and urban planning.


Battersby sees the future of sustainable urban food systems relying on several factors that must be considered, including their responsiveness to wider global megatrends like climate change, biodiversity loss, resource demands and depletion, rapid urbanization and demographic shifts. These megatrends also shape politics, and she places governance as the primary ingredient to shape food systems and rural-urban relationships. Beyond that, she stressed the importance of generating political will and new modes of governance, where relationships are built-in and beyond the State to leverage funding and networks. According to Battersby, generating political will can be approached through multiple channels. For instance, exploring how food policy interacts with other policies to create joint programming and examining the costs associated with not improving agrifood systems.


Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, Chairman of the Global Forum on Human Settlements, Former UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative, addressed the importance of all levels of government for a sustainable urban future in his opening remarks as well. He recognized that “In the last two decades, cities and urban communities have become the dominant driving force for human development. Sustainable development hinges on the fate of the world’s cities. The international community values the growing importance of cities and local governments.”

While great strides have been made in transforming urban agrifood systems, work still needs to be done to secure a sustainable future, food security and proper nutrition for growing global and urban populations and ensure that no one is left behind. The conversations at FAO’s High-Level Dialogue, Sustainable Urban Food Systems for SDGs Acceleration, at the GFHS 2022 pointed to strong governance, planning and frameworks, all backed by strong local-level data, analysis and stakeholder participation, as key elements for accelerating progress. Partnerships - multi-stakeholder and multisectoral - as the glue for long-lasting transformation.


Read more about the future of food and beyond cities in FAO’s new publication, The Future of Food and Agriculture, which brings together the 18 drivers for food system transformations, including population dynamics, consumption and dietary patterns and rural-urban linkages.