Local Food Systems: A Sustainable Food System For Cities

Climate Action 6 min read , March 3, 2021
  • Our relationship with food needs to change. We need to cut our reliance on unsustainable, mass-produced food - and switch to food that is locally sourced, healthy, and environmentally friendly.
  • In this article, we discuss some of the challenges facing local food systems and the many reasons why we should give them more support.
Local Food Systems: A Sustainable Food System For Cities

The global food system has become unsustainable. Driven by a need to cut costs and increase profits, large food producers have become dependent on fossil fuels, low-cost labour, and unsustainable agricultural practices. This hasn’t necessarily made food cheaper with food inflation typically rising faster than general inflation and many Europeans are still threatened by food insecurity today.

With the approval of the European Green Deal, the EU has set out the roadmap to becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. At the heart of the deal is the “Farm to Fork” strategy which details how Europeans will transition to a more sustainable food system. The strategy is very much welcomed and has the potential to have huge economic, health, and societal benefits to our communities. But there are challenges that we need to overcome before we can enjoy the benefits of local food systems.

Challenges to local food systems in cities

  • Many Stakeholders – Food production is big business. Global revenues from food are expected to hit $7.5 trillion in 2020! With a market of this size, there are many competing stakeholders. Big food producers and supermarket chains hold a lot of market and lobbying power, making it difficult for local food systems to develop in cities.
  • Not enough support from cities – Many cities are understaffed and under-resourced, so find it difficult to implement policies that develop local food systems. Some resource-light policies could be to ease regulations for smaller producers or lend support to the development of farmers markets.
  • Diverging Policies – Where cities are putting in place policies to encourage local food systems, other policies are having contradictory effects. For example, the French government introduced the Projets Alimentaires Territoriaux (PAT) policy to “bring together producers, processors, distributors, local authorities and consumers, and to develop agriculture in the territories and the quality of food”. In contrast, these local producers could soon be competing with cheaper imported food as part of the EU-Mercosur Trade Agreement.
  • ‘Local-Washing’ – Food tracing and labelling have become much more relevant in recent years although some companies still attempt to navigate the system by labelling their food as ‘local’. For example, some regulations allow food to be labelled “locally produced” if it has been processed and packaged locally. The reality is it may have been imported from another country which can mislead consumers and direct them away from truly local brands.
  • The ‘Real’ Cost of Food – With the scale of mass-produced food, there are undoubtedly cost efficiencies. Local food producers can struggle to compete on pricing and gain a foothold in the market.

Why should we support local food systems?

Local food systems have a number of great benefits that impact all areas of society. We list some of the main benefits here:

Health Benefits – Everyone is becoming more health-conscious nowadays which is driving demand for healthier and more natural foods. Some health benefits include:

  • Improved nutrition – Fresh food doesn’t travel well so the longer it takes to reach the consumer, the less nutrition it will have. Green peas are a classic example - losing just over half their vitamin C in the first 24 to 48 hours after picking.
  • Fewer chemicals – Local farmers tend to use organic or natural pest repellents. With large-scale food production, crops are often mass sprayed with pesticides to reduce costs.
  • Fewer preservatives – Mass-produced food is usually loaded with preservatives. Preservatives help to keep food fresh during the long-distance travel to the consumer. Local food doesn’t need preservatives.

🌳 Environmental Benefits – We’re waging a war against Mother Nature that we can’t win. The environment needs to be protected for future generations to enjoy. Buying local food impacts the environment in a number of ways:

  • Less Food Miles – The carbon footprint of our food is a well-discussed topic. Buying local food avoids reducing the amount of carbon due to transporting and refrigerating food over long distances.
  • Less Plastic – Single-use plastic is an environmental disaster. Scientists think about 8 million metrics tons of plastic ended up in the world's oceans in 2010. Locally sourced food should have limited packaging helping to tackle this global problem.
  • Fewer Resources Used - Local food will likely be more seasonal - lowering the overall environmental impact. Local producers won't typically grow out-of-season vegetables under lights in the depths of winter. Rather they will grow crops that can survive winter conditions with minimal sunlight - making the best use of natural resources.

💰Economic Benefits – Local food systems boosts the economies of our cities and municipalities:

  • Money stays local - When consumers buy local food, the money stays in the community. It puts money back in the pockets of local farmers and food producers who in turn, spend locally. This cycle boosts the prosperity of the local area.
  • Creates jobs – The pandemic has made many people unemployed. Fostering a local food system would result in economic recovery, by creating jobs for local communities.

👋 Social Benefits – The pandemic has shown us how much we value our social connections. Local food systems have many social benefits:

  • Brings Community Together – Local food systems foster the creation of strong community networks. Consumers can get to know local food producers through farmers markets.
  • Improves well-being – Buying local food makes a difference to the local economy, community and environment. This can give consumers a strong sense of satisfaction and fulfilment - with the knowledge that they’re doing their part.

What policies can cities implement?

Some cities have already realised the benefits of encouraging the growth of local food systems. We picked out two great examples of policies implemented by cities across the world.

1. Leuven, BE – recently launched a food and agricultural advisory board. The board's role will be to advise the city council on the food strategy going forward. Increasing the share of locally grown and seasonal food products is at the top of the agenda.

2. Douaisis Agglo, FR – has been a strong advocate for the Territorial Food Project. The municipality created the “Alimcad” program which runs from 2018-2022. The program finances sustainable food projects and runs several activities throughout the year to engage the community with local food production.

Futureproofed Cities offers further insight into how cities can develop their local food economy. The platform provides pre-calculated climate measures around food and agriculture, ready for the city teams to use. City teams can also easily collaborate with their peers on the platform and share best practices on local food systems.

🚜 Keeping it local

Local food producers need help. ‘Big food’ is gradually forcing local farmers and producers to shut up shop – giving way to more mass-produced and unsustainably sourced food. But we can change this, the people in our towns and cities have the power to decide where we go from here.

The market will inevitably follow the money so if we choose to buy healthier, more sustainable, and ethically sourced food, we can give the power back to local producers and enjoy the benefits in our towns and cities.

Antonio is the Climate Action Specialist at Futureproofed. His specialities include mitigation and adaptation measures research, urban climate adaptation, local climate data, and more. When he's not hard at work helping cities become more sustainable, he can be found cycling across Flemish fields.

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