May 28, 2015

The Importance of Understanding Urban Food Flows

Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series

By Dana Boyer, PhD candidate in science, technology and public policy at the University of Minnesota and 2015 Next Generation Delegate
Access to sufficient food and proper nutrition is essential for human health and wellbeing. In order for the food system to adequately nourish the global population, however, it needs to function in a way that does not deplete the natural resources upon which it relies. Acknowledging the importance of avoiding environmental degradation to provided sustained nourishment to the human population, the US Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion has recently incorporated attention to the environmental impact of different food choices into their 2015 Dietary Guidelines for America.
With the projection that two thirds the world’s future population will reside in urban areas, concern for a sustainable food system is especially important for cities. Agricultural strain on natural resources gains greater importance in the context of rising global population, expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. Cities will therefore play an increasingly prominent role in meeting an estimated 70 to 100 percent increase in food supply requirements.
My research aims at understanding urban food flows in order to help cities ensure a sufficient food supply to meet the health needs of their citizens. Understanding the resource requirements of city food systems is the first step towards securing future supply. The benefit of footprinting, or attributing resource use to specific activity, includes visualization of supply chains, understanding resources needed to support food consumption in a city, associated environmental impact, and accessibility. Such research has important implications across the value chain, as production tends to occur far from the location of consumption.
Such analysis of urban food flows also enables cities to assume a more active role in the food system, especially in regards to decreasing their environmental impact. Food production is one of the most resource intensive human activities, with 70 percent of global freshwater use attributed to agricultural production, and the associated supply chain responsible for 30 percent of total global carbon emissions.  With respect to land, agriculture has resulted in the clearing of 27 percent of the earth’s tropical biome, 45 percent of deciduous forest and 70 percent of total grassland area. Agricultural runoff of pesticides and fertilizer have also caused degradation of aquatic habitats through eutrophication and oxygen depletion.  A comprehensive and robust model of regional food flows allows stakeholders to predict and mitigate potential risks to supply caused by events such as drought or other resource limitations.
With the information that footprinting provides, my research aims at providing a framework that informs and guides tangible city action to minimize supply risk and environmental impact while ensuring the nutrition and health needs of their citizens are met on a sustained basis.
   Read previous posts in the Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series:

Genetic Engineering: A Tool to Strengthen Global Food Security, Megan Fenton, PhD Student in Agronomy - Plant Breeding and Genetics, Purdue University

Edible Insects as an Integrated Component of Sustainable Food Systems, Afton Halloran, GREEiNSECT and Social Science and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Fellow, University of Copenhagen


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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