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Six lessons from transforming city food systems

The current food system doesn’t work. Industrial farming has turned agriculture into a substantial source of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, and is driving biodiversity loss. In 2019, 15 city governments set out to change that. Three years on, this is what they have learnt.

1. Begin by mapping the system

To change a system, you have to trace problems back to their roots. Zooming out to assess the full system allows decision makers to do just that, and defines the challenge you’re trying to address. Starting with this clarification helps to identify the intervention points that could have the biggest impact, and can find committed stakeholders who can drive change.

2. Develop infrastructure, awareness, and digital tools to reduce food waste

A circular economy prevents food waste. In it, by-products of the food system that are edible are used as ingredients, surplus edible food is redistributed to people who need it, and inedible by-products and waste from the system is used as inputs for new products.

3. Provide funds that propel innovation

Cities are hubs of activity, and vital centres of innovation, research, and learning. They are well placed to help pioneer solutions for systems change. Instigating strategies that spur innovation can inexpensively uncover tailor-made and sometimes disruptive solutions for a local system, foster entrepreneurship and lead to business growth.

4. Leveraging cities’ unique buying power can accelerate progress…

The Big Food Redesign study revealed that fast-moving consumer goods companies (FMCGs) and retailers have substantial influence on the global food system. Given their scale and influence, they have the power to make nature-positive food mainstream through evolving their ingredient selection and sourcing decisions, guided by circular economy principles.

5. …especially towards food production that has regenerative outcomes

Growing food in ways that bring about regenerative outcomes for nature means using practices that contribute to the creation of healthy and stable soils, improved local biodiversity, improved air and water quality. It is implemented through practices tailored to local contexts such as using diverse crop varieties and cover crops, rotational grazing, and agroforestry (growing trees around or among crops or pasture). The result is agricultural land that more closely resembles natural ecosystems like forest and native grassland, providing habitat for a wide range of organisms.

6. Transformation can’t be driven by cities alone

Cities have made a strong start. Municipalities working towards circular food systems recognise its potential for emission reductions, and see collaborative, upstream efforts as a cost effective solution for tackling multiple challenges, including climate change, biodiversity loss, employment and poverty.



Features and thought-leadership on the circular economy

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Ellen MacArthur Foundation

We work to build a framework for a circular economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.