Keeping food on the table: cities for sustainable food systems

In 2020, 118 million more people went hungry due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the world’s food systems struggling, it is time for cities to rethink their approach to food systems.

Last year more than 150 national leaders committed to tackling global hunger at the UN’s first-ever Food Systems Summit. However, well-managed food systems are vital not just for public health but for the economy and the environment too. Food systems provide jobs for millions of people working along food-supply chains. They also account for more than a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions and are responsible for more than half of water pollution and biodiversity loss.

Cities consuming a lion’s share

Although rural areas produce the majority of output, cities too have a critical role to play in achieving sustainable food systems. By 2050, up to 55% of the world population will be living in urban areas, consuming 80% of the world’s food. In 2019, around 931 million tonnes of food waste was generated – 17% of global food production – much of it in cities.

Cities – and their food needs – continue to grow

Source: Florczyk, A. et al. (2019[1]), GHSL Data Package 2019 (database); Jones, B. et al. (forthcoming[2]), Projecting Global Population Grids to 2100, Publications Office of the European Union.

Broadening the boundaries of food policy 

Many sub national governments have long worked to improve access to food and the diet of their residents. For example, in New York, the city implemented several food policy initiatives between 2008 and 2018, yet disparities in access to key programmes remain, particularly in neighborhoods with large immigrant populations, and incentives for new food stores have not always helped improve food security or diets for low income households. This highlights the need for a much broader approach to food policies that considers linkages between policies on social welfare, economic development, education and planning.

Many cities are now changing tack, and broadening the boundaries of food policy by integrating food policies into their urban development strategies and by promoting a circular economy approach, which aims to prevent food waste, improve distribution and boost efficiency. In places like Ljubljana and Porto, local initiatives reduce food waste through communication campaigns and incentives. Milan Food Policy works to limit the use of agricultural land, address land degradation, and provide food to the most vulnerable population groups. New York is expanding access to education, improving working conditions to increase income and access to food, and looking to use its system for food procurement to advance broader social goals.

Partnerships for progress

These strategies succeed by improving connections between people, places and firms. They bring together public, private and not-for-profit stakeholders to improve economic, social and environmental outcomes at every step of the chain. This helps policymakers exploit synergies – for example by transforming organic waste into fertilisers for agriculture as in Valladolid, Spain or biogas in Groningen, Netherlands. It also helps them manage tradeoffs – for example in the balance of land use between agriculture and the built environment such as in Brussels, Milan and Paris, where projects have been established to promote urban agriculture.

The development of sustainable food systems needs to be a shared responsibility between local, national, regional, and global actors. However, the approaches taken by local leaders can inspire change on a much broader scale. For example, Medellin, Colombia, has implemented efforts to overcome the disconnection between rural producers and urban consumers in a way that has influenced Colombia’s national strategy.

Well-managed food systems can help tackle global hunger, provide decent jobs, and reduce carbon emissions. Cities are increasingly finding new tools and policies to rise to the challenge through sustainable and circular food systems. By doing so, they can play a leading role in keeping food on the table.



Coordinator, Territorial Approach to SDGs at | Website | + posts

Stefano Marta is currently coordinating the Programme “A Territorial Approach to the Sustainable Development Goals,” which support cities and regions in implementing the SDGs in various OECD and partner countries. Stefano also coordinated the OECD project on “Reshaping Decentralized Development Cooperation.” He previously led the initiative “Adopting a Territorial Approach to Food Security and Nutrition Policy,” jointly developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), OECD and UNCDF. He also worked on various other projects, including on urban-rural linkages in Morocco and on territorial indicators in Tunisia. Prior to joining the OECD, Stefano worked at FAO on the territorial approach to food security and nutrition policy. In addition, he was part of the FAO Task Force for the formulation of the Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Strategy 2040 of Oman and he also participated in the FAO Al-Ghab Development Programme in Syria.

Economist at Trade and Agriculture Directorate OECD | + posts

Koen Deconinck is an Economist in the Trade and Agriculture Directorate of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris. He is lead author of the OECD reports “Making Better Policies for Food Systems” (2021) and “Concentration in Seed Markets” (2018). Before joining the OECD, he was a management consultant with Bain & Company. He holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Leuven in Belgium and has published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, the European Review of Agricultural Economics, Food Policy, Business History, the Journal of Agricultural Economics, and the Annual Review of Resource Economics, among others. He is also the co-author (with Johan Swinnen, Thijs Vandemoortele and Anneleen Vandeplas) of Quality Standards, Value Chains, and International Development: Economic and Political Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2015).