Cities and their food: a relationship below the radar?

by David Lammers, MSc Environmental Studies and Sustainability Studies, Lund University

The goal of making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable is anchored within the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG11), and so is achieving food security (SDG2). The interrelation between these two goals was the central focus of the “Resilient urban food systems: city progress” session co-organized by RUAF Foundation, BMZ and GIZ at the Resilient Cities conference.

The significance of food in an urban context is clear, and stressed by ICLEI and other actors active in this space. However, as Monika Zimmermann, Deputy Secretary General of ICLEI, pointed out, food issues have not been in the focus of city policy and research until recently – potentially because they were often regarded as a national or rural issue rather than an urban challenge. However, this panel discussion demonstrated once more that food should play a bigger role in urban policy and resilience-building.

One key connection between these two goals is the fact that urban populations consume tremendous amounts of food, while only producing a fraction of it themselves. Cities therefore rely on their hinterlands and areas even further away. The example of Medellin, Colombia, presented by Sara Valencia Naranjo from the Agency for Cooperation and Investment of Medellin and the Metropolitan Area, showed this: only 3% of food is produced in the city itself, 26% is from the region and 71% is imported from further parts of the country or abroad. At the same time, many cities are physically expanding, often times also expanding into fertile land and thus constraining agricultural activities. Cities therefore face a risk of endangering their own food supply if they do not effectively manage their growth.

A second reality that connects the ambitions of SDG 11 and SDG 2 is the fact that the availability of food does not necessarily equate to access, as pointed out by Stefan Schmitz of BMZ. The brutal truth is that in many cities, malnutrition among segments of the population coexists with large amounts of food waste. It is vital that cities encourage the use of local food banks, for example, where supermarkets can deliver food that is no longer marketable but still editable. This food can be distributed to residents in need – a valuable opportunity for cities to alleviate waste with minimal additional resources, as explained by Marielle Dubbeling of RUAF Foundation.

Throughout the session, it became clear that bringing food issues into an urban context not only connects SDG 2 and 11 but also can serve as a lever and entry point that delivers on both environmental and social aspects of resilience. At the same time, it is a field that needs to be approached from an integrated urban/rural perspective. It certainly appears advisable for food to take a higher place on urban policy agendas in the future.