Growing crops in cities will put an end to food waste

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, empty supermarket shelves prompted people to ask – sometimes for the first time – where their food comes from. In 2021 we will see more food in cities provided by producers who are less vulnerable to the disruptions of long supply chains we experienced during 2020.

The pandemic caused consumers around the world to turn to smaller, local and regional food providers that could secure access to food during lockdowns. In the UK, the Farmers to Feed Us digital platform created new ways for small-scale food producers to provide fresh produce directly to consumers. Sales of food from community-supported agriculture (CSA), where consumers subscribe to receive in-season harvests from groups of UK farmers, increased by 111 per cent from February to April, with this trend also being apparent in the US and China. The 105-acre Eatwell Farm in California saw such a big spike in demand that it had to cease new subscriptions – and the waiting list is still growing. These demonstrate how producers can provide consumers with food security and, in return, how consumers have supported their businesses.

At the same time, accessing food hasn’t been easy for everyone. Countless people around the world have been forced to turn to food donations. Meanwhile, when restaurants, schools and workplaces closed, food producers were hit with a lack of demand that saw tonnes of edible food go to waste. As income for smaller farmers was supported by consumer demand, a decline in business from food-service providers has made their futures uncertain. With the food system’s vulnerabilities exposed, the question has become: how can we better connect communities and food producers to make sure we are more resilient to future shocks? In 2021, the relationship between food and our cities will be drastically reimagined to answer this question.

Half of the world’s population currently live in cities and, by 2050, 80 per cent of the world’s food will be eaten in densely populated urban environments. But, as cities strive to become more resilient, they will become much more than centres of consumption. To become stronger in the face of unplanned disruptions, our cities and their surrounding areas will increasingly supply food and make use of valuable nutrients, creating thriving local, regional and international food networks. This will be a pivotal step towards a circular economy for food, in which nothing becomes waste, everything has value and the way we produce food regenerates natural ecosystems.

Increasing the amount of food grown in and around cities will also help to secure supply to residents without access to CSA schemes in nearby fields. Singapore, for example, imports a large proportion of its food, with only one per cent of its land being dedicated to agriculture. When the country’s food supply chain was disrupted during its coronavirus outbreak, consumers in Singapore turned to urban farms and the government began to identify unused spaces in its cities for agricultural development. Similar developments to produce food locally will also be seen elsewhere in 2021. In Detroit, plans for a CSA programme are currently being shaped, while in France, the remaining two-thirds of Europe’s largest urban farm, Nature Urbaine, will be planted in Paris, while 50 plots in Nantes that once grew flowers will provide vegetables for 1,000 households in need.

Food producers will also adopt regenerative practices, which focus on outcomes such as healthy soil and carbon capture that tackles climate change, to build resilience into their operations. And cities will have a key role to play in this.

In the current food system, when food flows into cities, organic waste is created in the form of discarded produce, by-products and sewage. This waste is full of nutrients that can be used to grow new food and create biomaterials, but in today’s system it is more likely to end up in landfill or go untreated. However, there are more viable – and greener – alternatives. In Italy, paper is already being made from pasta by-products, while orange peels, grape skins and excess milk are being turned into fabrics. In the UK, London has committed to ensuring that by 2026 no biodegradable or recyclable waste will be sent to landfill.

This shift will not only be driven by a need to address waste and pollution. As we look to recover from the economic shock of Covid-19, our analysis has shown there is an economic opportunity worth $700 billion (£538 billion) for cities to reduce edible food waste and use by-products. Less than two per cent of organic waste in cities is currently returned to the soil, yet the more organic matter that’s within soil, the more water it can hold and retain, making crops resilient to disturbances such as droughts and floods. This applies whether food is grown in the city, its peri-urban surroundings or on rural farmland.

As part of the European Green Deal, the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy is aiming to reduce use of synthetic fertilisers by at least 20 per cent and triple the amount of land farmed organically by 2030, as well as promising legally binding targets to reduce food waste. To meet these targets, cities will be expanding their organic waste collection schemes in 2021 and ensuring it is used effectively, putting it back on the land as a replacement for synthetic fertilisers, using it as compost to build organic matter in soil and to feed livestock.

These kinds of initiative will give cities a surer footing for the future. In 2021, we will begin to build a resilient circular economy for food.

Ellen MacArthur is founder and chair of trustees of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

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