The Times They Are A Changing -- And So Must Food.

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It seems appropriate that Bob Dylan would win the Nobel Prize for Literature just three days before World Food Day (October 16th) which this year is drawing attention to “climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too”. Change in food systems from farm to flush (and back to farm) are urgently needed if we are to reduce the enormous burden of food on the environment, and on our own health. Over the past decade, diet has become the leading cause of human mortality – whereas food production remains a primary driver of environmental degradation, from climate change and biodiversity loss, to overuse of scarce water resources.

Change is rapidly needed if we are to feed a global population of 9 billion both healthy and sustainable diets by 2050. All too often however this change is too slow, as seen in the glacial progress towards actionable international agreements on climate change.

City leadership in contrast is increasingly taking the lead to drive the needed change. As my friend Marcelo Munaretto, Deputy Mayor of Food Security for the Brazilian city of Curitiba reminds me: “cities are were people suffer, they are where people survive, or they are where people thrive”. Actions by municipal leadership have direct impacts on the livelihoods of millions with currently more than half of the world’s population living in cities. Similarly, the Chicago Business Council recently reported that 40 cities are amongst the world’s 40 of the 100 largest economies. This includes 12 U.S., and eight Chinese cities. Facing the growing challenges of today’s populations, municipal leaders are rapidly recognizing that they have the collective responsibility and power to drive the needed food system transformation.

Nowhere is the global leadership of cities more evident than in the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact launched at World Food Day just a year ago today. Led by the city of Milan, and signed by more than 130 cities with a combined population of 460 million, the pact is a commitment by city leadership to build urban food systems based on principles of sustainability and social justice. On Friday, eight cities were recognized for their efforts in the first iteration of the Milan Pact Awards. Mexico City and Baltimore took the top prizes for their collective efforts on food system transformation.

Six other cities were recognized for the specific efforts they have made addressing Milan Pact priorities including governance, sustainable diets and nutrition, social and economic equity, food production, food supply and distribution, and food waste. Here are some highlights of the innovative steps these six city are taking:

Vancouver took the Governance prize on food strategy for adopting the Vancouver Food Strategy fostering a systems approach urban planning and design. Much of their efforts are supporting urban agriculture and community markets that reconnect the city’s citizens with fresh and local foods. Vancouver’s efforts also include providing green bins specifically for food scraps that have kept more the 370 thousand tons of food scraps out of landfill.

Birmingham’s efforts to combat childhood obesity, “Fit for the Future” took the Sustainable Diets and Nutrition prize. One in four of Birmingham’s children are obese. To combat this trend the city has put in place a comprehensive program to encourage better eating habits making healthy foods more visible and accessible in fast food chains and encouraging greater physical activity.

Lusaka in Zambia is faced with a growing population including families leaving rural villages to settle in cities. Women from these families often struggle to find employment. To help these families transition into urban economies the city supports women’s groups by providing food sector training and peer support through women’s associations while also giving access to small start up loans. Lusaka takes this year’s social and Economic Equity Prize.

For more than 14 years Quito Ecuador has supported self-production of organic food and promoted urban agriculture as a means of increasing food security for the most vulnerable members of their city. Space if freed within the city and dedicated to food production by individuals and are complemented by public “bio-ferias” or organic markets where urban can be collectively sold. The city’s effort reminds its citizens that food is part of a public and democratic process – rather than corporate or commercial –earned it the Food Production Prize.

Toronto’s Grab Some Good combats urban food desert using Pop-up markets, and Healthy Corner Stores to increase access to healthy foods in urban Food Deserts. Mobile markets, pop ups in subway stations, and mobile markets are designed to ensure access to healthy foods in all of the city’s communities. For these efforts, Toronto took the Food Supply and Distribution Prize.

More than 30% of food globally is wasted. Latvian city Riga received the Food Waste Prize for its efforts to convert food waste to healthy food. Their example demonstrated the compatibility of high tech and sustainability. The city sorts organic waste and intercepts it before it goes to landfill. It converts this waste to biogas used to heat city greenhouses producing off-season vegetables. The combined impact of these efforts reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and landfill space while providing both jobs and fresh produce.

By 2050, approximately two thirds of the global population will be urban. Each and every one of these individuals will depend on actions made by municipal governments to create cities where healthy food is both accessible and affordable. The growing clout of cities means that these same governments will increasingly be accountable for the environmental impacts of food production, distribution, waste reduction and ideally reutilization. Those cities that have signed on to the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact demonstrate through their actions, that they are preparing for exactly this challenge.

Fabrice is the Science Director of EAT, and SR Scientist at Bioversity International. In collaboration with the C40 Cities Network and the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, EAT launched the C40 Food Network in Stockholm this June.