In major shift, cities increasingly seen as key to strong food systems

The New Urban Agenda adopted last month was surprisingly robust on the issue, advocates say, and food could now be key to implementing the strategy.

An Afghan farmer displays agricultural products at a trade fair in Kabul, 2008. (Jawad Jalali/UN Photo)

To paraphrase a famous saying by Napoleon Bonaparte, a city marches on its stomach. That, at least, is the thinking of the United Nations’ food specialists, who argue that urban development is the new locus of action to solve hunger and nutrition.

They made their case in the run-up to last month’s Habitat III summit on urbanization, where nation states adopted a 20-year sustainability strategy known as the New Urban Agenda. The once-in-a-generation event caused some rethinking of long-held orthodoxies in the food-security community — namely, a belief that to tackle hunger, one must go back to the land.

“In the past, the food-security arms of the U. N. have had somewhat of a rural bias,” said the World Food Programme’s Brian Bogart. “It was almost accepted as fact that if you work in food security, you have to work in rural areas, because that’s where food is grown.”

But that’s changing at the three U. N. offices that deal with food, known as the Rome-based agencies for their headquarters in the Italian capital. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has launched a Food for the Cities Programme.

As urban planners promote farmers’ markets and policymakers seek strategies to tackle food deserts, old assumptions that cities will easily weather food shocks such as droughts are proving unfounded. In turn, these U. N. agencies have launched partnerships with local governments to encourage a virtuous cycle whereby urban consumers are well-fed to the economic benefit of rural food producers.

Mayors pact

Rome may be home base for this global advocacy effort, but it’s Milan that has become the namesake of the signature initiative to link healthy food and the New Urban Agenda. Last year, Italy’s biggest city hosted a World Expo that celebrated the “slow food” movement, which values home-cooked local produce over processed fast food.

“In the past, the food-security arms of the U. N. have had somewhat of a rural bias. It was almost accepted as fact that if you work in food security, you have to work in rural areas, because that’s where food is grown.”

Brian Bogart
World Food Programme

As the Expo came to an end, Mayor Giuliano Pisapia rallied over 100 of his peers to sign onto the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact “to call together urban areas from the north and the south of the world in order to map out a common route towards new food policies,” according to a release.

[See: We can’t build better cities without improving nutrition]

Signatory cities, which now number 131, pledge to adopt policies that support equitable access to healthy food, fight non-communicable diseases due to sugar and salt, reduce waste and develop dietary guidelines for residents. For example, Mexico imposed a 10 percent tax on sugary drinks — legislation that now is serving as a model for similar ballot initiatives in four U. S. cities when voters go to the polls next week.

One year on from the adoption of the pact, which coincided with World Food Day, mayors gathered in Rome last month ahead of Habitat III. Even though the pact is voluntary, several cities pressed for measureable indicators that would help them track progress toward its goals.

In addition, two cities won the first of an annual award to recognize concrete steps toward better food policy. Baltimore was recognized for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s 2010 decision to hire a full-time food policy director to oversee strategies across municipal agencies. Mexico City shared top honors for creating community dining rooms in 2009. Today, there are more than 204 dining halls across 16 Mexican districts that serve an estimated 33,500 affordable meals daily to the poor, according to the awards committee.

[See: Baltimore, Mexico City honored for urban food policies]

With a shared approach between rich and poor countries, one hope is that the pact will encourage the developing world not to emulate wealthy nations where obesity has become an epidemic.

“It’s a matter of not repeating the mistakes that we’ve seen in developed countries,” Bogart said. “By solidifying the recognition in developed countries but also to try and get developing countries thinking about these issues as they urbanize, particularly in Africa, where it’s going to be fundamentally important to the future of the continent.”

Strengthened links

Following an intense lobbying effort during the Habitat III negotiations, food-policy advocates found much to cheer in the outcome of the conference. At this year’s gathering in Milano, they “enthusiastically acknowledge[d] the New Urban Agenda”, according to a document released on the eve of Habitat III.

What drew these advocates’ eye? The document noted key references to equitable and affordable access to healthy food and “nutrition for all”, as well as reducing food losses. They also lauded references to coordinating food policies with energy, water, health, transport and waste programmes, as well as to sustainable urban agriculture and farming. The New Urban Agenda also was seen as strong on food system planning and development in order to increase access to markets, strengthen urban-rural linkages and improve resiliency.

These latter issues in particular received intensive focus during discussions on the New Urban Agenda. The Rome-based agencies and other food lobbyists worked the negotiating process hard to give food issues more prominence.

[See: The missing link in the New Urban Agenda: Food systems]

With support from Colombia, the European Union, France, Germany and the United States — whose lead Habitat III negotiator is a food security expert — strong references to the topic were inserted into subsequent drafts of the text. (See the final version of the New Urban Agenda here.)

As a result, wrote food lobbyist Thomas Forster during Habitat III, “To a degree that could not have been anticipated even a few months ago, food security, nutrition and sustainable food systems are placed at the center of urban and territorial sustainability.”

Of particular note is an acknowledgment of the role that food plays in what in the Habitat III context has been referred to as “urban-rural linkages” — in this context, food grown in the countryside that finds a market in the city.

As a result, said the FAO’s Jorge Fonseca, “We are advocates that the city cannot develop on its own without the surrounding rural area.” This notion prompted the concept of city-region food systems, which look at the widest possible geographic range — not just the metropolitan area where people live and work but the rural hinterland that serves a hungry metro.

[See: The New Urban Agenda’s rural-urban conundrum]

Another of the Rome-based agencies, the International Federation for Agricultural Development, has been arguing this point for several years through research making the case that cities and rural areas are interdependent.

With such a prominent role for food in the New Urban Agenda, the Rome-based agencies anticipate a role in what comes next. “Food systems gives us that opportunity for implementation,” Fonseca said. “It’s safe to say that FAO is in a position to lead the post-Habitat III review in terms of implementing the actions addressing food security and nutrition.”

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