By making great strides in productivity, the industrial food system has managed largely to meet the demands of a growing global population. However, this approach to food production, and the management of food by-products, is endangering biodiversity and human health. It has become clear that this food system is no longer fit for the 21st century and that a new model is required.
The increasingly wasteful way of producing food today, relies on extracting finite resources like phosphorus, potassium, and oil, to grow food in ways that harm the natural systems upon which agriculture depends. The damage also includes the degradation of 12 million hectares of arable land a year and requires almost one-fourth of the forest land. Then, in cities we capture and use an extremely small fraction of the valuable nutrients in discarded food, food by-products and sewage. Air pollution, antibiotic resistance, water contamination and chemical exposure from food production will claim almost five million lives a year by 2050 which is twice as many as the current toll from obesity. Food production also accounts for around one-quarter or 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
With cities soon expected to consume 80% of food globally, a new report titled by Cities and Circular Economy for Food released by Ellen McCarthy Foundation lays out a vision of how to harness the power of a city to influence how food is grown and prepared to benefit the economy, human health, and the environment.
To tackle these pressing food issues, the report recommends redesigning the urban food system to incorporate circular economy principles: design out waste and pollution; keep products and materials in use; and regenerate natural systems. But what does a circular economy for food in cities look like?
The research team reached out to businesses from across the food value chain, city governments, waste managers, as well as food system experts such as the SDG2 Advocacy Hub to reach a consensus from the broadest set of stakeholders. By the end, over a hundred organizations helped to develop three interconnected ambitions for a more resilient food system:
- Source food grown regeneratively, and locally where appropriate: food entering cities should be produced in ways that improve natural ecosystems, i.e. builds soil health. Local sourcing is key in supporting this.
- Make the most of food: surplus edible food should be redistributed where possible; unavoidable food waste should be transformed into new revenue streams, i.e. organic fertilizers, as well as new food products, textiles, structural materials and energy.
- Design and market healthy products: food designers, processors, and marketing departments, can create and promote innovative food products that enable citizens to make healthy food choices for people and the environment.