Our food system is exhausted 

“The resilience of our food system is being pushed to the absolute limits,” said Corinna Hawkes, Director for food systems at FAO during the session on Urban food policies for a sustainable and just future at the Brussels Urban Summit. “And we know from our personal lives that when we’re exhausted, we can barely look after ourselves.”

The current scenario

The impact of this can be observed globally. “Climate change is one of the leading causes of rising food prices. We have seen the impact of the Ukrainian invasion on the supply of food chains across the world,” said Anja Katalin De Cunto, Team Coordinator for Food at Eurocities. While Marta Messa, Secretary General of Slow Food added that just this year 10% of European fields were lost because of climate change, and millions of fruit trees and bushes were lost in Italy because of recent floods.

Aziza Akhmouch, Head of Division Cities, Urban Policies and Sustainable Development at OECD, also said that the current food system produces too little food, as most land is used to feed livestock, or too much food in some areas of the world is wasted, contaminated or not nutritious enough.

The situation will only get worse if we don’t take action, and with the industry and political leaders pushing back against several of the European Commission Green Deal policy proposals, the risk is palpable.

“The industrial food system has not being delivering”

Marta Messa, Secretary General of Slow Food

While the situation can be infuriating, Messa insisted that “we should not despair. We need to act together.” Messa sees biodiversity as “the insurance of our future,” and she explains that this is not only the biodiversity of crops or of agricultural practices that respect the environment, but it’s also the biodiversity of knowledge. For example, traditional knowledge about transforming food.

For Hawkes “there’s absolutely no question that cities have an enormous role to play in helping to make a better, stronger food system. And they should be empowered to play this role.”

What cities bring to the table

Tirana, for example, works with children “to teach them as soon as possible what is a good meal, how they can eat, and how they can share with one another,” said Anisa Ruseti, Deputy Mayor in charge of Social Affairs in Tirana.

As part of this initiative, the city will also create gardens on school rooftops, so that the children can learn to grow them. The harvested vegetables will also be used in the meals offered in Tirana’s social centres, giving the children a sense of helping others and encouraging solidarity.

Food can connect a variety of different policies, for example, climate, social ambitions, education, or labour. Cities like Tirana create food policies that tackle the food system as a whole, starting from different entry points. To promote change, however, all actors in the food system need to be involved in policymaking.

Successful examples can be found in France where metropolitan areas like Bordeaux and Grenoble have developed food councils bringing together all stakeholders and achieve goals that “have been more effective than national regulation, for example in primarily serving seasonal fresh organic food,” noted Messa.

Birmingham has also made a conscious effort to engage with its locals, particularly in engaging with minority communities and making sure its policies take into account their specific needs. “Policies that respond to the concrete needs of the people and actively involve them are essential,” stressed Messa.

Everyone should pitch in

Soon the Food Trails project will open a peer programme where other cities are going to be able to learn from experiences like Tirana, Birmingham, Bordeaux and Grenoble. “Networks like Eurocities and initiatives like the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact understand that there is a high appetite for knowledge sharing between cities,” explained Hawkes.

However, such initiatives can’t stay at the local level. “Place-based policies combine this bottom-up, innovative experience from cities with the national vision and strategy,” said Akhmouch. She added that the interdependencies between governing levels are essential for policies to work and be effective.

Food considerations aren’t only made in urban planning within the urban boundary, but into territorial planning, and cities have a powerful influence on the areas around them. “24% of the world population lives between the rural and the urban area. These play a powerful role in connecting places, people, and policies, including food,” said Akhmouch.

So empowering cities is vital and it involves the support of the national and European levels. “You need to have national-level policies, regulations, and funding to support what they’re doing in the cities,” said Hawkes.

The future of the Sustainable Food Systems Framework Law is still unclear, yet cities hope to find allies at both national and European level to get our food system to a healthy, sustainable, inclusive stage.

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