One of the biggest questions around our increasingly urban planet is how to feed our populations sustainably. Just a handful of mega-companies now dominate global food production. In food trading there are only four agricultural firms: ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Louis-Dreyfus, which exert huge influence. They affect biodiversity through massive land-use intensification and land conversion – habitat loss, and, with just a few crops, a dramatic loss of genetic diversity.

Around 54 per cent of the world’s population was living in urban areas in 2016. That is predicted to rise to 66 per cent by 2050 according to the United Nations.

How to feed ourselves properly is one of the biggest questions facing the human race. Food provision can either worsen or improve climate change, biodiversity, health and soil quality. Poor food provision can lead at its worst to wars, refugee crises or mass starvation.

We are in the middle of the sixth greatest species extinction in the history of the planet. This is partly because there are so many of us and we are feeding ourselves without regard to the biosphere that nurtures and protects us.

Here is a provocation: is this occurring because we have left the provision of food to an economic format, the private sector, that is primarily interested in short term profit and fails to factor in the external costs of their activities (pollution, soil loss, climate change, diet-related health crises) on their balance sheets?

Do we need governments at all levels need to implement policies to correct this tendency?


A new report, What Makes Urban Food Policy Happen? looks at these issues and contains insights from five case studies. It is a substantial effort from The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, and examines ways in which cities can design and maintain highly-developed, integrated food-related policies.

The outlook

Here are 10 reasons why action on food production is urgently needed:

  1. Global population (currently 7.5 billion) is scheduled to peak at 11.2 billion by 2100 (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2017)
  2. As many as 795 million people were still food insecure in 2015 (FAO et al., 2015).
  3. Two billion people suffer from the “hidden hunger” of micronutrient deficiencies
  4. Over 1.9 billion adults are obese or overweight (IFPRI, 2016)
  5. One third of agricultural land is degraded (Status of the World’s Soil Resources, 2017)
  6. More than enough food is produced for today’s global population (The Global Food System: an Analysis, 2016) but much is wasted and is not distributed to those in need
  7. Of the nine planetary boundaries assessed by WWF in its 2016 Living Planet Report four global processes have passed beyond their safe boundaries – climate change, biosphere integrity, biogeochemical flows and land-system change
  8. Humanity currently needs the regenerative capacity of 1.6 Earths to provide the goods and services we use each year (WWF).
  9. The per capita ecological footprint of high-income nations dwarfs that of low- and middle-income countries (Global Footprint Network, (GFN) 2016).
  10. 7 global hectares (GHAs) is the available per capita share of ecological biocapacity now – this will decrease with a rising population (GFN). It sounds a lot, but not when you include all the other species on the planet.)
Global Ecological Footprint by component vs Earth’s biocapacity, 1961-2012.

Above image: Carbon is the dominant component, and the largest component at the global level for 145 of the 233 countries and territories tracked in 2012, mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels. The green line represents the Earth’s bio capacity to produce resources and ecological services. It has been rising slightly, mainly due to increased productivities in agriculture, according to the Global Footprint Network, 2016. Data are given in global hectares.

The relative ecological footprint of various countries. WWF’s report says: “Consumption patterns in high-income countries result in disproportional demands on Earth’s renewable resources, often at the expense of people and nature elsewhere in the world.”

As more people become wealthier and live in cities, they will expect their consumption patterns to rise. If we have to feed more people, and reduce our consumption of the Earth’s resources to within planetary boundaries, what can we do?

WWF’s report says: “root causes include the poverty trap, concentration of power, and lock-ins to trade, agricultural research and technology.” To these I would add: ignorance of the sustainable alternatives.

Concentration of power and lock-ins to trade

Much of the problem has been analysed by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development.

Its analysis argues that to increase food security we need “policies and programs to diversify diets and improve micronutrient intake; and developing and deploying existing and new technologies for the production, processing, preservation, and distribution of food”.

WWF’s Living Planet Report agrees, adding that we need a change of mindset – to adjust our “systems thinking”. “For instance, individual consumers can change their purchasing behaviour, or people with greater political or economic influence can formulate strategies for policy change.”

Four certainties arise from this. We need:

  • more locally produced and varied diets
  • less food waste
  • better care of our soils
  • to eat less intensively-reared meat

Why? Well, just a handful of mega-companies dominate global food production. In food trading there are only four agricultural firms: ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Louis-Dreyfus, which exert huge influence. They affect biodiversity through massive land-use intensification and land conversion – habitat loss, and, with just a few crops, a dramatic loss of genetic diversity.

In fact, 75 per cent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species (FAO, 2004). Large-scale monoculture operations mean high volumes of chemical inputs equating to pollution, carbon emissions and soil degradation.

Grassland (23 per cent of the Earth’s surface) is ideal to retain as grazing for ruminants (since this system of farming supports the soil and sequesters carbon). But indoor, intensive rearing of animals has the opposite effect.

This is mostly because the animals need feed (soya and grain) and a staggering third of agricultural cropland is used to grow this animal feed. The ecological footprint is huge, especially when rainforests are cleared to provide these crops.

Eating less of this type of meat would have multiple benefits: on animal welfare, the land, transport impacts, greenhouse gas emissions and human health.

Systemic patterns in the food system – agricultural subsidies, trade agreements, commodity markets – need to alter to effect this change.

So do habits – such as higher economic status automatically meaning there are higher levels of consumption, especially of meat.

Feeding cities

Cities used to feed themselves from their hinterlands – which were nearby. Now food can come from anywhere in the world. Mapping the ecological footprint of food consumed in cities would be a huge and complex task.

Then there’s the problem of equity. Good, nutritious food may enter a city but does not necessarily reach everyone. Many urban neighbourhoods are poorly served by markets and stores selling healthy, cheap foods, contributing to high incidences of obesity and diet-related ill-health in those areas.

The New Urban Agenda, adopted by the UN Habitat III conference in October 2016 (Quito, Ecuador) to guide the urbanisation process over the next 20 years, makes commitments to improving food security and nutrition, strengthening food systems planning, working across urban-rural divides and coordinating food policies with energy, water, health, transport and waste.

Also, the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 by United Nations, 2015) include one to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” and many of them address food in one way or another.

In response, a growing number of city governments are developing urban food policies.

This is the subject of the next article.

David Thorpe is the author of The One Planet Life, a Blueprint for Low Impact Living.