Governing urban food systems in the long run

by Lukas Fesenfeld

The relevance of long-term oriented urban food governance

Today’s food and agricultural systems are closely linked to the most pressing challenges for sustainable human life such as climate change, the erosion of natural resources and various social, economic and health-related risks and inequalities. In terms of environmental sustainability, greenhouse gas emissions from food production and consumption represent 19-29% of global total emissions[1] (Chatam House, 2015; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014; Vermeulen et al., 2012). In social and economic terms, the health-related costs of poor nutrition are astonishing. Globally, 44% of diabetes cases and 23% of ischemic heart diseases are attributable to overweight (WHO, 2015). Our food system is thus confronted with an increasing number of long-term policy problems that cause costs far into the future.

Today, important food and agricultural policy decisions are taken at the national or supranational level (e.g. EU). Yet, ever more people live in cities – already more than 50% of the world’s and more than 70% of the European population (UN, 2014). Cities have started to develop a stronger awareness of how to use their power to shape the food and agricultural sector, and different urban strategies and regulations have emerged with the goal to change e.g. public food procurements towards greater sustainability[2]. Cities have substantial market power and can significantly contribute to sustainable development. A number of research projects have investigated urban food policies and urban food strategies. Such strategies aim to integrate the complexity of urban food systems within a single policy framework, including food production, processing, distribution, access and waste management (Carey, 2013; Mansfield & Mendes, 2013; Moragues et al., 2013; Morgan, 2013; Morgan, 2015). It is important to acknowledge that food policy is a crosscutting policy issue closely integrated with a city’s infrastructural, land use and transport system planning. Food policies can also play a vital role in today`s refugee crisis – bringing different cultures to one table, be it in urban gardening projects or cooking courses (see e.g.

Lessons learned for effective urban food governance – the case of food policy councils

Urban food governance has recently received more attention in continental Europe. Building on successful pioneering cases from Canada (ca. 60 Food Policy Councils e.g. Toronto, Vancouver), the USA (ca. 212 Food Policy Councils) and England (e.g. Bristol Food Policy Council), cities around continental Europe start to develop urban food strategies and build governance structures to deal with this cross-cutting policy issue. A special moment in this process has been the Declaration of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact signed by more than 100 cities signaling to the public the political will to act. In fact food can be a politically attractive policy issue to local politicians as voters often positively relate to the topic (see more Fesenfeld, 2016 forthcoming).

Yet it is important to thoroughly understand the challenges of urban food governance systems. The lessons learned in the Anglo-Saxon world of urban food governance cannot be directly transferred to the governance systems in continental Europe. With no doubt it is important to have strong civil society movements urging for the establishment of Urban Food Policy Councils and far reaching urban food strategies in continental Europe. Yet, this civil society pressure seems not sufficient in the context of more hierarchically organized urban governance structures in countries like Germany. Here it is most important to win the initial support of local politicians and administrations, consult them with scientifically-based evidence on the urban food systems and policy instruments.

This evidence-based policy-making is the basis for gradually and successfully establishing officially acknowledged food policy councils. The system of officially recognized councils allows for controversial discussion between economic, political and civil society actors with a diverse set of views and interests. Only in this open room fruitful discussion can emerge. There needs to be a forum to discuss all important questions regarding the urban food system in a transparent and evidence-based manner. This forum composed by practitioners from all parts of the food system and advised by scientific experts is suitable to prepare those decisions finally taken by the administrative or political representatives. These representatives themselves often do not have the expertise, the capacity or the mandate to take far-reaching and future-oriented decisions facing the complexity of the food system. Of course it is of highest importance that these officially recognized food policy councils are representatively composed so that no particular interests can influence the counseling process too much. Introducing such a format of officially recognized urban food policy councils throughout continental Europe offers manifold opportunities for exchange between cities – increasing the chance for innovative solutions to the most pressing problems of today`s food system.

The need for innovations to govern urban food systems in the long run

This governance innovation offers a way how cities can manage a complex and cross-cutting policy topic even though their current governments are all too often vested into turf-conflicts and rigid administrative structures. As I show in a forthcoming study (Fesenfeld, 2016 forthcoming) it seems most promising to set-up and manage officially recognized urban food councils under the direct supervision of the city’s majors. This increases the chances of getting all those actors involved that are required for developing systematic, realistic and politically feasible food strategies. In my forthcoming study I offer first insights on how actor-centered and institutional factors specifically influence the adoption and implementation of urban food policies. The paper recommends inter alia the establishment of tri-sectorial food governance fora (urban food policy councils), the commission of urban food maps[3] and the employment of a central food coordination manager. Further (transdisciplinary) research is particularly warranted to scrutinize the developments of urban food policy councils as governance innovation for direct democratic decision-making in cross-cutting (long-term) policy domains as well as the advance of urban food mapping methodologies to both quantitatively and qualitatively assess (complex) urban food systems.

All in all, urban food governance is an innovative policy field that may help to overcome the most pressing challenges for today’s food and agricultural system. Urban policymakers and stakeholders are increasingly aware of their power to steer food and agricultural markets towards sustainability through urban food policies. Today there is a unique chance for civil society actors and the broader public to engage in the food policy discussions and put pressure on local governments to set-up representative and officially recognized food governance systems.

[1] According to the IPCC, 24% of GHG emissions can be attributed to the Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use sector. Agriculture is with 56% the largest contributor to non-CO2 GHG emissions (CGIAR, 2015). Including, however, the indirect emissions in the food processing, transportation and waste process increases the total number of GHG emissions further (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014).

[2] Sustainable food procurement regulations (SFPRs) are defined according to a number of concrete social, economic and ecologic criteria (Wageningen University, 2013, p.2). They aim to strengthen the procurements of seasonal, plant-based, regional and organic food products. SFPRs are often integrated as one policy instrument into more holistic urban food strategies.

[3] Read the following study from FIBL (Moschitz, Oehen, Rossier, & Wirz, 2015) on a very promising quantitative approach to measure regional food product consumption

Image credit: Creative Commons via Flickr.


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