Issue brief

Behind the words: food security

Author: Fabien Clavier, urban planner and researcher, Future Cities Laboratory (Singapore ETH Centre)

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

— World Food Summit, 1996

3 days. That would be the time required for a city like Paris [1] to exhaust its entire food stock, in the event of a breakdown in the food supply chain. This figure, accessible on the French Agency for Environment and Energy Management’s website, is based on the characteristics of the Ile-de-France Region (or Paris Region), where 90% of food products are imported, even as 49% of the land is devoted to agriculture.

In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, the topic of food security, already widely debated, takes centre stage again and is reaffirmed as one of the major challenges facing large urban metropolises.

The concept of food security refers to two main types of problem, that of food supply (quantitative) and that of quality and nutritional values of said food (qualitative). Policy and scientific literature make a clear distinction between “food security” and “food safety”the two dimensions being strongly interrelated [2].

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, many food-importing countries have seen prices of certain food staples rise sharply. In Paraguay, a country that has opted for soybean monoculture, the price of fruit and vegetables has increased by more than 120% [3].The second largest importer of wheat in the world, Algeria, dependent mainly on the productions of France, Argentina and Canada, has been facing since the end of March a shortage of semolina, produced from durum wheat grains, raising fears of social tensions [4]. In Colombia, many poor urban neighbourhoods, whose inhabitants depend on the informal economy, have suffered from food shortages since the beginning of the lockdown on March 24th. Many of them put red rags on windows to ask for help and express their anger against the public authorities and their poor management of food aid [5].

Other importing countries have managed over time to diversify their sources of supply, develop storage strategies and optimize local production, and appear less at risk of food shortages. This is the case for Singapore, which imports almost 90 % of its food, in particular fruit and vegetables from neighbouring Malaysia. The partial lockdown of Malaysia, which began on March 18th(Malaysia Movement Control Order), was extensively mentioned in the local press but did not lead to food shortages. Food supply chains between the two countries remain operational.

In France, the government did not report any food shortages but highlighted some tensions on food supply chains [6], which brings forth the question of urban food systems resilience. Some stakeholders in the French food supply chain industry have adapted to the new context. For example, the Marché d’Intérêt National (MIN) de Rungis, the world’s largest fresh products wholesale market, serving Paris and its region, launched at the end of March a digital delivery platform called “Rungis delivered to your home”, in partnership with the Ile-de-France local government. Stéphane Layani, President of the MIN of Rungis, described this solution as “the taxis de la Marne of the war against the coronavirus “, a reference to the fleet of taxis that drove undercover from Paris to the front lines of the Marne during WWI, carrying reinforcements that turned the tide of battle in favour of the Allied Powers [7].

Although supply chains seem to withstand the shock caused by the COVID-19 crisis, at least in Europe, it is important to revisit the relation between city and food and explore the question of food relocalisation, which is gaining greater momentum.

How has the topic of urban food security emerged on the public stage? What kinds of strategies are cities developing to ensure their food security? How to go beyond localism and approach relocalisation through a systemic approach?


1- Food and the city, a long-term relationship

“What distinguishes and indeed contrasts the nation system and the city system is their structural organization. The city state avoided carrying the heavy burden of the so-called primary sector: Venice, Genoa and Amsterdam consumed grain, oil, salt, meat, etc., acquired through foreign trading; they received from the outside world the wood, raw materials and even a number of the manufactured products they used. It was of little concern to them by whom, or by what methods, archaic or modern, these goods were produced: they were content simply to accept them at the end of the trade circuit, wherever agents or local merchants had stocked them on their behalf.” [8]

— Braudel, 1984a: 295

Considerations regarding food supply, food security and urban growth have punctuated the development of cities throughout history [9]. In the Antiquity, Mediterranean cities guaranteed access to food for their urban populations thanks to tributes levied on their colonies. During the Middle Ages and the Modern Period, powerful city-states, like Venice, secured their food supply by regulating trade and enforcing commercial deals with neighbouring agricultural regions. Starting in the sixteenth century, the emergence of Nation-States progressively stripped cities of their own food policies. The newly created central governments started to increasingly intervene in the production and distribution of food, a trend that is still ongoing. In the 19thcentury, nevertheless, industrial cities, marked by hygienist concerns, managed to recapture some food prerogatives, from the regulation of the presence of animals in the city to the treatment of waste in urban areas. Some urban waste was reutilised as fertilizers in peri-urban agriculture, which facilitated the emergence of “market gardening green belts” around cities such as Paris. However, these agricultural practices declined during the 20thcentury and, after WW2, suburban farms shrank. The Parisian “market gardening green belt” disappeared following the automobile boom, increased competition for land use in peri-urban areas, and the possibilities offered by the developing rail networks to quickly transport fruit and vegetables from farther [10].

The disengagement of central governments from the administration of food markets began in the 1990s, stemming from new international trade agreements for the liberalization of agricultural products, fostered by the World Trade Organization at the end of the Uruguay Round [11]. It is precisely the withdrawal of the central governments, combined with rising environmental concerns since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, that opened a new window of opportunities for cities to reclaim control over food production.                            

Urban agriculture in Milan, 2019 Credits: Alexandre Rotenberg, Shutterstock

If the topic of food security did not emerge earlier in the North, it is also because it has long been a concern associated to cities of the Global South. Dependence of developing countries on food imports has accelerated since the 1980s, due to massive urbanization, specialization in crop production and structural reforms which led to the plummeting of domestic food production. In 2007-2008, a global food crisis, originating from a sharp rise in the price of basic food staples (wheat, rice, soybeans, corn), plunged some countries of the South into a state of political crisis and instability, particularly in North Africa (one of the factors that sparked the Arab Spring protests). This major crisis contributed to the repositioning of food security at the top of the global urban agenda and created renewed interest for urban food policies among the academic community.

The Economist Intelligence Unit, in its latest 2019 Global Food Security Index [12], underlines the vulnerability of countries dependent on food imports, given the growing consequences of climate change. Singapore, for instance, which has ranked at the top of the overall index in 2018 and 2019, drops 11 places when adding in the natural resources and resiliency metric, as a result of factors that include vulnerability to sea level rises, ocean eutrophication, and food import dependency. Today, food vulnerability no longer affects only the countries of the Global South but is shifting to the North, which creates new concerns and opens up a new phase in the city/food relation history.

2- A recent movement to reclaim the issue of food security in the Global North

In this context of climate vulnerability and long before the COVID-19 crisis, many cities began to reclaim the issue of food security. One of the major manifestations of this movement is to be found in the rapid development of urban agriculture, in all its forms: community gardens, urban farming rooftops, vertical farms, urban permaculture… But the movement towards regaining control over food production has deeper implications.

Since 2015, the city of Milan has launched several projects, such as the creation of direct links between rice and cheese producers and school cafeterias, as well as an initiative encouraging students to bring home leftovers from schools. It is also in Milan, thanks to the World Expo titled “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”, that the Urban Food Policy Pact was signed in 2015 by 200 cities. The pact has three main dimensions: preserving agricultural land, promoting alternative food chains, and limiting food waste [13].

In Paris, the bottom-up citizen platform Paris en commun (Paris in common), which is supporting incumbent Mayor Anne Hidalgo in the 2020 municipal campaign, suggested the creation of an agricultural cooperative, named “AgriParis”, in order to manage the supply of organic and locally-produced food to the capital city, especially for school cafeterias. Different approaches are explored in the cooperative project, such as direct purchase of agricultural land in France, investments into existing farming exploitations, or the creation of agricultural exploitations on land owned by the city of Paris [14]. This strategy seeks to reconnect with the market gardening tradition of Paris, which has shrunk over time because of urban sprawl.

In Singapore, the government announced in 2019 the “30 by 30” strategy [15], aiming to fulfil 30% of Singapore’s nutritional needs locally by 2030. This ambitious objective is based on the development of high-tech vertical farms and indoor multi-storey recirculating aquaculture systems. The Singaporean strategy also aims to ramp up educational courses and training in the area of urban agriculture while encouraging the development of a new local agro-food industry, spearheaded by the newly created Singapore Food Agency. Local production is one of the key levers as the city-state plans to grow its three food baskets: growing local, growing overseas and diversifying food sources.

Rising concerns over food security and urban food supply chains have led the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to propose in 2015 a new approach for cities and regions interested in food relocalisation. Entitled “City Region Food Systems”, this approach is based on different actions: new alliances between cities and their agricultural hinterlands, shorter food supply chains, improved protection of ecosystems and biodiversity, informed land use management systems, and inclusive governance models.

The “City Region Food Systems” approach developed by the FAO, 2015

Food relocalisation seems to enter a consolidation phase and is spreading over the world. However, some challenges remain and call for a systemic approach to food security. Those challenges relate, in particular, to the limits of localism, land-use conflicts, and social inequalities.


3 – How to move away from the “local trap” and build a systemic approach to food security

In 2006, researchers Branden Born and Mark Purcell warned against the excesses of the “local trap” [16], which consists of systematically assuming that the local scale is preferable to other scales. “The local is assumed to be desirable; it is preferred a priorito larger scales. What is desired varies and can include ecological sustainability, social justice, democracy, better nutrition, and food security, freshness, and quality.”  The authors argue that the assumption that local is desirable does not always hold. The local trap can blind planners in pursuing localization and obscuring other scalar options that might be more effective in achieving a desired outcome. Along with space, place, and territory, Born and Purcell underline that scale is also socially produced, both fluid and fixed, and is a fundamentally relational concept.

Urban food systems are not immune to the risks of the local trap.

In regard to the ecological footprint of food chains, studies have revealed that the distance travelled by food (food miles) can pollute less than local production of the same commodityA product transported by plane between Chicago and Boston could have a much larger ecological footprint than a product transported in container ships between Asia and California [17]. In the United States, different research findings have pointed out that urban agriculture could accelerate gentrification in certain neighbourhoods and was sometimes linked to a rise in property prices, contributing to the displacement of disadvantaged populations [18]. In San Francisco, some analysts identified that subsidies for the development of urban agriculture could amplify the affordable housing crisis by reducing land banksthat could be devoted to social housing [19].

In order to avoid this type of pitfall, relocalisation must be tackled through a systemic approach, by reconnecting the issue of food security with the numerous challenges facing cities: land use management, climate change, water resources management, energy, public health, access to basic services, social inequalities, etc.

The systemic approach makes it possible to think beyond the local trap and to expand the potentials of relocalisation in order to serve other urban policy strategies. Based on the analysis of municipal food policy documents produced by 17 cities in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, urban scholar Roberta Sonnino has identified four core values that inform the narratives of urban food policies and explain the socio-cultural dimension of relocalisation [20]. The four values emerging from these policy discourses are: 1) a systemic approach to food, reconnected to public health and environment protection concerns; 2) an emphasis on civil society participation in the governance of food systems; 3) a flexible and inclusive approach to relocalisation, conceived as a vehicle to re-examine flows with surrounding productive territories and collaborations with actors of the food chain (the “foodshed approach”); 4 ) the development of a new “translocalism” through international city networks (such as the Urban Food Policy Pact mentioned above).

Relocalisation can take a relational dimension when it comes to reducing the number of intermediaries in the supply chain and strengthening the resilience of urban food systems. In this regard, emerging technologies can play a role to directly connect producers and consumers, and to certify the origin of certain products. For example, French start-up Direct Market [21], which supports short food supply chains between local producers and supermarkets, is using blockchain technology to verify and confirm each stage of the farmer-to-store supply chain.

Communication campaign launched by the Singaporean government to raise awareness about food security (Let's game change food security), 2020

Food security is a multi-dimensional challenge that goes beyond simple localism or food autonomy. It includes considerations related to governance, citizen participation, and urban planning. Food security calls for a rescaling of the entire urban food system in favour of new, inclusive and systemic objectives, within the safe operating space of planetary boundaries. The development of a “progressive” localism seems to open new ways towards a reconciliation of two major urban models that have marked European urban history; an “autonomous city” which tightly manages its productive hinterland and a “networked city”, connected to global exchange corridors. This could steer some ideas for the governance of the Greater Paris food system.

[1] Alimentation durable (page consulted on 20 April 2020)

[2] Pour une histoire de la « sécurité alimentaire » (page consulted on 23 April 2020)

[3] Cartes sur table : faut-il craindre des pénuries alimentaires dans certaines régions du monde ? (page consulted on 20 April 2020)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Urgence. En Colombie, les chiffons rouges de la faim (page consulted on 23 April 2020)

[6] Des tensions dans l’approvisionnement alimentaire, mais pas de pénurie (page consulted on 20 April 2020)

[7] « C’est un peu les taxis de la Marne de la guerre contre le coronavirus », raconte le patron du marché de Rungis qui lance son site de vente en ligne (page consulted on 23 April 2020)

[8] Braudel F., 1984a. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century, translated by Siân Reynolds, Volume 3. The Perspective of the World, New York: Harper & Row

[9] Daviron, B., Perrin, C., Soulard, C-T. (2017) Histoire des politiques alimentaires urbaines en Europe, de la ville antique à la ville industrielle, in Construire des politiques alimentaires urbaines : Concepts et démarches, Chapitre 2. Librairie Quae

[10] Ibid.

[11] (page consulted on 23 April 2020)

[12] Global Food Security Index (GFSI) (page consulted on 20 April 2020)

[13] Le pacte de Milan, 200 villes engagées pour une alimentation durable (page consulted on 20 April 2020)

[14] « Nous pouvons faire de Paris une capitale agricole » (page consulted on 20 April 2020)

[15] Singapore sets 30% goal for home-grown food by 2030 (page consulted on 22 April 2020)

[16] Born, B., & Purcell, M. (2006). Avoiding the Local trap: Scale and Food Systems in Planning Research. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 26(2), 195–207.

[17] Do food miles really matter? (page consulted on 20 April 2020)

[18] How food projects can exacerbate urban inequality (page consulted on 20 April 2020)

[19] How Urban Farming Is Making San Francisco’s Housing Crisis Worse (page consulted on 20 April 2020)

[20] Sonnino, R. (2019). The cultural dynamics of urban food governance. City, Culture and Society, 16, 12–17.

[21] Covid-19 : comment les producteurs agricoles se réorganisent (page consulted on 21 April 2020)

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La Fabrique de la Cité is a think tank dedicated to urban foresight, created by the VINCI group, its sponsor, in 2010. La Fabrique de la Cité acts as a forum where urban stakeholders, whether French or international, collaborate to bring forth new ways of building and rebuilding cities.

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