Bringing food production back to cities

01 May 2022
Shifting a city’s green belt closer to consumers is key to boosting sustainable local food production and achieving food security goals

Many of the compelling challenges we face in the world today, including climate change, obesity and a lack of biodiversity, are interconnected and relate to the way we produce and transport our food. Solving these issues starts by bringing sustainable food production back to the city.

The world is urbanising at a rapid pace. By 2030, 60 per cent of the world population will live in urban regions. Because of this, megacities around the globe continue to expand, causing the green areas around cities – better known as green belts – to disappear. And with them the farmers who used to feed the urban dwellers.

The result? A world where cities heavily rely on a system in which food is produced on an increasingly industrial scale in a few centralised locations.

This type of food production has many negative consequences, both socially and ecologically. Subsidies on fossil fuels have made it economically viable to ship food halfway across the world. This creates an enormous amount of CO2 that is destroying our climate.

In addition, large-scale monocultures that diminish biodiversity, cause deforestation and deplete soil health have become the norm. At the same time, millions of people suffer from lifestyle diseases because they live in food deserts, cities where it is almost impossible to find fresh produce. 

It is time for a reset

We need to inspire city governments, urban planners, developers and architects to rethink the way cities are designed. We need to bring green belts closer to the cities and develop the ‘brown fields’ in urban areas to create more space for food production.

I see cities of the future as food-producing cities that produce much of their own food and are the source of a sustainable future. Imagine the food potential; London, with 2,700 hectares of undeveloped land, could be self-sufficient for more than 60 per cent of its population, according to data from the Sustainable Urban Delta foundation.

What is critical to success is the establishment of long-term, strategic collaborations between all stakeholders in the horticulture ecosystem and developing knowledge partnerships with universities and research institutes to drive innovation in and around the region’s major urban areas and co-create sustainable business models.

As governments worldwide, including in the Middle East, have embraced the idea that a significant part of their food can be produced locally and sustainably, these knowledge partnerships have started to take shape.

We need to inspire city governments, urban planners, developers and architects to rethink the way cities are designed

In fact, the region has made incredible strides in food security strategy development and the implementation of sustainable growing solutions in collaboration with the private sector.

Over the past two years, the global pandemic has further accelerated the global quest for local food production, with cities and countries around the world having faced logistical challenges in food production and trade, making this an opportune time to further intensify this focus.

Food-producing cities are livable cities

Integrating food production not only ensures that megacities are self-sufficient, but also means more green space is created, water can be saved, and energy sources can be optimally utilised, while reducing CO2 emissions and thus making a substantial contribution to a better climate. Food-producing cities are livable cities. They create new connections on a social, ecological and economic level.

As governments around the world, including the Middle East, have embraced the idea that a significant part of their food can be produced locally and sustainably, these knowledge partnerships have started to take shape

The Netherlands, where Priva has its headquarters, developed itself to what can now be considered the first food-producing city globally. This started after World War II with an ambition to ensure there would never be hunger in the country again.

Today, Holland is home to some of the most innovative agriculture developments, such as a milk-producing floating farm, and these iconic projects attract entrepreneurs and reconnect people in cities.

It is a vision that starts with ambition and a local government that can facilitate it, and I see this in the UAE. Like many countries, the UAE heavily relies on food imports. It has acknowledged this as a risk and has set high ambitions in its food security strategy.

I believe the UAE could set the standard for food production in a harsh climate, with economically feasible solutions driven by renewable energy and reusable wastewater, creating new ecosystems around the many ways of producing and processing food.


About the author

Meiny Prins is CEO and co-owner of Priva and founder of the Sustainable Urban Delta foundation

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