Urban Food Systems: a challenge to holistic approaches?

Urban Food Systems: a challenge to holistic approaches?

Manfredi Valeriani


The complexity of the world we live in requires more and more encompassing approaches towards the problems that societies face across the globe. New conceptualizations of development and sustainability have been created in the past based on intersectionality, highlighting the interconnection among issues. A clear example of this is represented by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) that years ago have created a structured formalization of how issues substantially different in nature (i.e. gender equality and life below water) maintain certain levels of interdependence, both positive and negative, and all need to be tackled simultaneously to promote a more efficient action towards a better future. From the formalization of the SDGs there have been further conceptualizations that have favored holistic approaches towards development and sustainability. Most of these initiatives still find their origins in the UN framework and in the networked approach of the SDGs. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) is promoting a wider approach towards human health. The “One Health” approach recognizes the interconnection between human, animal, and environmental health. This concept starts from the understanding that global health challenges cannot be tackled without a diverse approach that intervenes in various sectors including human and veterinarian health, environmental science, biology, and ecology, etc. As the SDGs themselves suggest, there is no preferential start when tacking action and there are no hierarchies among the goals.


Another example of this process is the role that Food Systems have in fostering a healthier and more sustainable development. Food systems can be defined as systems that “comprise all the people, institutions, places, and activities that play a part in growing, processing, transporting, selling, marketing, and, ultimately, eating food” (Food System Dashboard 2023). The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has developed a framework around the concept of food systems that allows for an encompassing approach towards development. It is not a secret that food production alone is accountable for high levels of greenhouse emissions up to one quarter of the global total (Ritchie 2019). The impact on the environment of food systems is extremely high, not only in terms of greenhouses emissions, but also in terms of land and resource (i.e. water) consumption. At the same time, food is the most basic factor that determines human survival. Unfortunately the global food environment has been deteriorating in the last years (The Economist 2022). It is within this framework that FAO has focused its work on Sustainable Food Systems (SFS) that are based on meeting today’s needs for food security without compromising future generations. To be defined as such, the sustainability of a food systems has to be met on three levels: economic, social and environmental (Nguyen 2018) showing once again the high intersectoral nature of food system, their impact, and the need for an encompassing action. However, it is important to keep in mind that while holistic approaches might ensure a more effective action at the systemic level, they might lose efficacy if applied at the local level. The urban food systems are an example of this.


The idea of food systems becomes increasingly complex when applied in urban contexts. While cities are often presented in full contraposition to rural areas in a clash between grey and green, urban spaces can still see the flourishing of local initiatives that can produce small scale food systems. However, these food systems share difficulties given by the environment they are created in. Urban agriculture faces limiting spatial constraints that lead to low production and the physical incapacity to have a strong impact on the food needs of the broad urban population (McClintock 2010). Limited production means limited economic sustainability, implying that urban farming is not a solid form of income and cannot be considered as a full-time activity, at least not in every community. This means that urban farming is used very differently depending on where it is implemented. Urban farming is shown to be directed to those with high amounts of resources in terms of time and capital, while vulnerable communities might see no interest in engaging in such activities. These factors can strongly undermine the long-term sustainability of these projects (Guitart, Pickering, and Byrne 2012). Yet, urban food systems are still capable to enhance access to fresh produce, to promote dietary diversity, to increase education on sustainable food practices and consumption and to foster community building (Carney 2012; Sanyé-Mengual et al. 2020). These effects are indeed higher in contexts where access and knowledge of food are limited. Therefore, the impact of urban farming is drastically different when looking at initiatives applied in different parts of the world. While in the Global North it might have limited impact in terms of providing basic needs, in the Global South it can still represent a form of income for low income communities its impact changes as the as we move to the north of the world where for high income communities it represents an improvement in ecofriendly production rather than a livelihood activity (Cavallo, Di Donato, and Marino 2016).


As other holistic approaches, food systems are indeed capable of grasping the complexity and the interdependencies that characterize the physical and social environment we live in.  At the same time, questions should be asked on the applicability of these approaches to the different local contexts. While theoretically sound, these global approaches such as those posed by the UN might fail the test of the local, favoring generalization at the expenses of the specific needs of vulnerable communities worldwide. Research is moving towards reconsidering the dimensions on which this generalization has been built. Dividing the globe according to lines drawn across the equator might impede the capacity to estimate new trends and new differences that are rising worldwide. Low-income communities in the south might be more similar to low-income communities in the north rather than to high-income communities of their areas. This implies that approaches to sustainable development might require new frameworks that go beyond intersectionality giving more attention to dimensions such as inter-community and inter-generation. Food systems, with their capacity to disseminate impact from global to local might be the perfect test to apply new approaches built on these dimensions.


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 873119.





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