Sustainable food supply chains

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Socio-environmental research and policy-making regarding sustainable food supply chains is essential in the creation of sustainable and just cities.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

Research and policy on sustainable food supply chains can focus on the environmental benefits of short food supply chains (SFSCs), the central role of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in creating sustainable urban food supply chains, and the various policy levels at which this topic needs to be addressed (bottom-up and top down). The particular approaches discussed in this overview aim to develop research based policy recommendations, with emphasis on knowledge brokerage and assessment tools. Relevant actors involved include SMEs, researchers, civil society and policymakers. The FOODMETERES case study of the Milan region e.g. contained a food-chain analysis and knowledge sharing opportunities regarding milk, rice, fruit and vegetable supply chains around Milan. Workshops were conducted for exchange and best practices. The region has an agricultural park and is located in a fertile area and therefore direct farm-customer sales are prominent. The food chain analysis looked at the strengths and weaknesses of the food system, the relationship between agriculture and urban development pressure, the impact of the agricultural park on food supply, and identified new growth strategies for the system.

Participants of the arena#1 event in Rotterdam identified the following important aspects and opportunities associated with sustainable food supply chains: increased connection of consumers to their food and the conditions required to seasonally produce it, increased transparency in production, the topic can highlight fragile food supply chains including urban food deserts and socio-economic determinants of unhealthy diets, it makes the carbon footprint of conventional food chains more visible, and it counters trends of food commodification and detachment

Shapes, sizes and applications

There are three different ways in which the topic of sustainable food supply chains can be used to create sustainable and just cities: physical implementation of initiatives, research work, and policy processes. Some examples of implementation include Barcelona's Nest City Lab which has an urban permaculture food forest and aeroponic farm, Rotterdam's slow food movement which promotes local food production and consumption, Paris' AMAP direct sales program, and companies such as Teikei Coffee whose ethically and sustainably produced beans are shipped to Europe via Sailboat! Examples of research analyses of the topic could include: analyzing the space that food supply chains take and how this impacts urban planning, and identifying land areas for urban agriculture - an approach used in the Connecting Nature project. Finally, examples of policy processes around the topic include: the AMAP's collaboration in research across regional agencies, educational institutions, and farm organizations, and Rotterdam's Port vision 2030 which incorporates SDGs in its future policies.


Food-Chain Analysis with a focus on SMEs, e.g. in the FOODMETRES project (2012-2015): [1] Studies and offers a set of tools (various assessments, innovation storyline, and knowledge brokerage tools) to help diversify agriculture and shorten food supply chains in urban areas. Tools are targeted at bottom-up and top-down (e.g. European data driven) processes of change to bridge international and local dimensions. SMEs are specifically targeted in the analysis, since they are active in metropolitan food chains.

Short food supply chains, e.g. in the FOODLINKS project (2011-2013):[2] Aims to create SFSCs between urban areas and food producers due to their social and environmental benefits. „Short” refers to both physical and social distance. Social distance refers to the opportunity for the producer and the consumer to interact and share information. There are no or very few intermediaries in SFSCs. Physical distance covers the distance a product has travelled between points of production and sale. While the approaches Short food supply chains and Sustainable food provision have much in common, e.g. a multi-stakeholder focus, SFSCs have less of a focus on environmental benefits than Sustainable food provision.

Urban Food Strategy, e.g. in the SUPURBFOOD project (2012-2015)[3]: Along with housing, food remains one of the most important commodities to ensure social security. An Urban Food Strategy (UFS) connects different stakeholders (civil society, local producers, policy-makers etc.) to engage in the several stages of the food system and provides fair food access to consumers as well as fair compensation to local producers.

It is difficult to ascertain the development stage and level of maturity of these approaches. Concern over urban food supply chains is not new, however, until the late 90s, food systems hadn’t been considered in urban policies (Pothukuchi and Kaufman, 1999)[4]. According to literature, the topics of cities and food appear to have been connected around the 2000s, but until 2017 there remained a lack of an (urban) food systems approach in EU food policy. Although the supposed benefits of applying SFSCs and food chain analysis is known, the overall success of the approach application is unclear. One can assume, based on the high prevalence of new urban food policies (in Europe and NA) since the 2000s, that the approaches have been successful. One limitation may be that the supply-focus largely ignores consumer demand and behaviour, and therefore an important determinant of the urban market for food. However, use of demand-supply models mitigates this. Regarding transferability, any context-specific recommendations for food supply chains will not be transferable. Each urban area has a unique food production/consumption context, especially concerning the role of SMEs and agricultural conditions. But the analysis tools and general concepts are transferable.

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

Urban. The approaches are all focused on the urban food system and its relationship with nearby agricultural production sites.

Sustainability. Approaches are concerned highly with environmental sustainability, since SFSCs, for example, reduce distance travelled for food, mineral recycling, water use, multifunctional land use etc.

Justice. Food supply chain approaches pay attention to procedural justice in applying a multi-stakeholder, participatory method of analysing and innovating urban food supply chains. There is a focus on social cohesion, too, via new methods of food production (i.e. urban gardens), and food security is a focus of urban food management (this is a type of recognition justice regarding food needs of vulnerable groups). However, many of the case studies from projects were focused on good, healthy, local food provision, rather than reducing food injustices (especially distributional justice of these local/good products).

Linking sustainability and justice. The approaches per se link environmental sustainability and justice. They make the connection between food security for urban residents and local, affordable, sustainable food production. However, the approaches reviewed here are mostly biased towards environmental sustainability, and the outcomes may actually not improve fairness in food access. For example, SFSCs have the potential to address environmental and justice concerns, but it is possible that SFSC policies only address concerns over distance travelled by food, and not socioeconomic access to that food. The Urban Food Strategy, on the other hand, explicitly seeks to achieve social security through food production and consumption.

Narrative of change

Striving towards sustainable food supply chains addresses a variety of problems: the environmental impacts of food production and transportation, the marginalization of small-scale farmers, inequalities in access to affordable, healthy food, and the longer-term resilience of food chains in the face of natural resource depletion, climate change and global population growth. Studying food supply chains and implementing policies will reconnect urban residents to their food through local production/distribution, which also empowers SMEs/farmers/marginalized groups and promotes environmental sustainability.

Transformative potential

The realization of sustainable food supply chains has high transformative potential because it challenges power relations within global and urban food systems. It addresses the food system as a whole and problematizes the power relations between large food retailers, the globalized food trade, and citizens. It empowers local, small scale, and often organic, farmers. It also aims to address the inequity in access to good, sustainable, local food which is based on affordability and general accessibility. However, if justice considerations are sidelined and only the “local” and “ecological” aspects are considered, the approaches risk reinforcing this inequity in accessibility to good food. This could happen, for example, if the prices of local food remained high, or if local food grocery stores/farmers markets were found in affluent neighbourhoods only. There may be an inequity of information too, in which affluent groups are more aware and connected with SFSC initiatives.

Participants of arena#1 identified the following concerning aspects and challenges associated with sustainable food supply chains:challenges for upscaling sustainable food supply chains into a feasible solution for more people in more cities (consideration of both urban agriculture and local food production in urban hinterlands could mitigate this, degraded soil in urban areas and how to "revive" it so that it's suitable for agriculture, tricky transportation logistics for new small-scale distribution systems, exclusive tendencies within sustainable food systems given the current price and access differentials, and the need to mobilize agri-knowledge from immigrants in sustainable food systems.

Illustration of approach

An example of SFSC in practice is direct food sales Brin d’Herbe in Rennes, France, as presented in the FOODLINKS project: “Brin d’Herbe is a group of 20 farmers near Rennes, France, who have been selling farmhouse and organic products in two stores on the outskirts of Rennes for twenty years. The main products are meat (60 percent of the turnover), fruit & vegetables, bakery and dairy products, cheeses, eggs, honey, and cider. They have about 1000 customers per week. The shop opens three days a week. The turnover is 1.5 million Euros per year. [5] To run the shop, farmers are organized in a specific form of association that allows them to maintain their identity and operational autonomy vis a vis consumers, and at the same time to define a common space of coordination. This aspect is also a regulatory requirement, as in this way the shop can be classified as a „direct selling“ activity. The legal status of the organisation is a "GIE = Groupement d'Interet Economique" (economic interest group). In addition, Brin d'Herbe runs a cooperation with limited liability, which enables them to carry out retail activities.” Additionally, funding for the initiative was claimed to benefit from a “favourable tax regime”.

Successful cases of Urban Food Strategies in practice come from Bristol (UK) and Malmö (Sweden). In Bristol the UFS was mainly pushed by an active civil society which led to the creation of Bristol’s Food Policy Council, which supports urban food growing networks and its people involved (see: Bristol Food Network). In Malmö, the implementation of the UFS was mainly led by Malmö municipality which set to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through food procurement, by replacing meat with lentils and pulse and by aiming to only serve organic food by 2020 (see: Policy for sustainable development and food, the City of Malmö).


References