How to build a Food System in Portuguese Regions?

  • João Leitão
  • 12 May 2022

Metropolitan areas, cities and villages around the world continue to grow at different rates and increasingly bear the costs of food and nutrition insecurity.

The answer to the question raised is not a simple one, since what we have on the table is the challenge of knowing how to build, in collaborative terms, a new network of resilient and sustainable City-Regions, given the external shocks to which all territories, without exception, have been subjected through different channels, such as financial, public health and, more recently, armed conflict with extreme uncertainty.

Metropolitan areas, cities and villages around the world continue to grow at different rates and increasingly bear the costs of food and nutrition insecurity. Cities often see themselves as having a limited role in ensuring equity of access for their inhabitants to sufficient, adequate, affordable, nutritious and safe food. Factors limiting access include volatile and rapidly rising prices of fertilizers, energy, food, as well as relying on various disruptions in food supply caused by natural disasters, public health problems and other effects of climate change.

Cities, given their nature as polarising agglomerations, should build more resilient and sustainable food systems in order to: better prevent and reduce food waste; provide decent livelihood opportunities for rural, peri-urban and urban producers; promote sustainable forms of food production, processing and marketing; and ensure food and nutrition security for all consumers and value chain actors.

At the institutional level, governments of metropolitan areas, regions, inter-municipal communities and cities, have increasingly and actively participated in national and international dialogues on food systems and the future of urban and nutritional security. However, until now, city managers, in terms of planning and spatial planning, have not demonstrated that they are capable of integrated thinking, followed by articulated strategic action, with a focus on public policies and food system planning. The action required, implies that cities have the ability to look beyond their own administrative and territorial borders.

In this regard, it should be noted that the food system of any city is a hybrid, combining different means of food supply, provision and consumption. Some cities rely primarily on nearby urban, peri-urban and rural farms and food processors, while others rely on food produced and processed in other countries or continents. Food systems link rural and urban communities within a country, across regions, and sometimes between economic-political blocs and continents. In consequential terms, cities and urban food supply systems play an important role in shaping their surrounding areas and more distant rural areas. Land use, food production, environmental management, transport and distribution, marketing, consumption and water management are of concern in both urban and rural areas.

Therefore, a new approach to the City-Region Food System (CRFS) can provide an innovative basis for structural transformation, followed by the implementation of new public policies for territorial cohesion and industrial ecology. Working simultaneously at the level of urban, peri-urban and rural regions within so-called urban-rural ecosystems can enhance the complexity of urban-rural linkages at a practical level by making food a common denominator. This also implies that broader issues (at the level of achieving the SDGs) can be addressed in a more focused and local way. In this context, a common goal of concerted improvement of urban food systems can help achieve better economic, social and environmental conditions in both urban and nearby rural areas, enhancing the well-being of residents.

Additionally, the CRFS can provide access to affordable and nutritious marketed food from local and regional producers, contributing to improved food and nutrition security for consumers, and increased transparency in the food chain.

At another level, CRFS can also enhance access to existing markets and support for alternative markets (i.e. farmers’ markets and community-supported bio-agriculture), which will improve the livelihoods of both micro-, small- and medium-scale producers and the productivity of large-scale actors. Thus, local and regional food hubs, shorter value chains, and broader, efficient and functional agricultural supply chains that link hinterland producers to market systems in urban regions can contribute to sustainable diets, reduce food waste along the chain, as well as stabilise livelihoods in the distribution, processing and manufacturing of food and fibre products.

At the European level, an increasing number of regions have realised the importance of their food system and social responsibility towards it. The development of a resilient food system in the City Region requires political will, the use of available policy and planning instruments (infrastructure and logistics, public procurement, forms of intellectual property, licensing and land use planning), the involvement of different governmental entities and agencies, as well as new organisational structures at different scales (regional, supra-municipal and municipal). The integrated food strategies of the City Region should be cross-cutting and cut across different public policy domains. An additional challenge, for example, is to organize the administrative and political responsibility to implement a food strategy in the City-Region of Beira Interior, in utopian terms, between the Douro River and the Tagus River, as I have been arguing, for a while!

  • João Leitão
  • Associate Professor with habilitation at UBI and Director of UBIExecutive Business School, and Member of the EIT Food RIS Policy Council