Cities as political entrepreneurs

Governing urban food systems in the short- and long term

Cities can act as political entrepreneurs of the food system. Urban food governance is an innovative policy field. This article outlines how cities become transformative players and help to overcome the most pressing challenges facing today’s food system.

Urban planning
Political Science
Food policy

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The relevance of urban food governance

Today’s food and agricultural systems are closely linked to the most pressing challenges to sustainable human lives such as climate change, the erosion of natural resources and various social, economic and health-related risks and forms of inequality (Foley et al., 2011; Godfray, Pretty, Robinson, Thomas, & Toulmin, 2010; Poore & Nemecek, 2018). In terms of environmental sustainability, greenhouse gas emissions from food production and consumption represent 25-29% of global total emissions (Poore & Nemecek, 2018; Springmann et al., 2016, Springmann et al., 2018). Particularly important is the production and consumption of animal products which is the main source of global emissions of methan – a powerful greenhouse gas that increases the risk of self-accelerating climate change in the near-term (Fesenfeld et al., 2018). In social and economic terms, the health-related costs of poor nutrition and the overconsumption of animal-based foods are astonishing (Springmann et al., 2017). Globally, 44% of diabetes- and 23% of ischemic heart disease cases are attributable to being overweight (WHO, 2017). Our food system is thus confronted with an increasing number of short- and long-term policy problems that cause costs today and will continue to do far into the future.

Today, important food and agricultural policy decisions are typically taken at the national or supranational level (e.g. EU). However, ever more people live in cities – already more than 50% of the world’s and more than 70% of the European population (UN, 2018). Cities have started to develop greater awareness of how to use their power to shape the food and agricultural sector. Different urban food strategies and regulations have emerged with the goal of transforming the food system towards greater sustainability. Cities represent substantial markets as well as political powers and can hence significantly contribute to sustainable development by taking concrete political action (see e.g., C40 Climate Leadership Group). A number of research projects have investigated urban food policies and urban food strategies. Such strategies aim to integrate the complexity of urban food systems within a single policy framework, including food production, processing, distribution, access and waste management (Carey, 2013; Mansfield & Mendes, 2013; Moragues et al., 2013; Morgan, 2013; Morgan, 2015). It is important to acknowledge that food is a crosscutting policy issue closely tied to a city’s infrastructure, land use and transport system planning. It is also closely related to the health, environmental and education policy of cities and can play a vital role in efforts to integrate migrants and refugees – bringing different cultures to one table, be this through urban gardening projects or cooking courses (for example, see the project “Über den Tellerrand kochen”).

Lessons learned for effective urban food governance – the case of food policy councils

Urban food governance has recently received more attention in continental Europe. Building on successful pioneering cases from Canada (more than 50 Food Policy Councils, e.g. in Toronto and Vancouver), the USA (more than 200 Food Policy Councils) and England (e.g. Bristol Food Policy Council), cities around continental Europe have started to develop urban food strategies and build governance structures to deal with this cross-cutting policy issue. A special moment in this process was the Declaration of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact which was signed by more than 100 cities and signals to the public the political will to act. In fact, food can be a politically attractive policy issue for local politicians, given that many voters in cities can positively relate to the issue and key local stakeholders favor such developments (see more, Fesenfeld, 2016).

However, it is important to thoroughly understand the challenges of urban food governance. The lessons learned from the Anglo-Saxon world of urban food governance cannot directly be transferred to the governance systems in continental Europe given the differences in the administrative, socio-political and economic circumstances between continental European countries and those of the Anglo-Saxon world. In countries like Germany, it is particularly crucial to start collaborating with local politicians and administrations as early as possible to convince them of the importance and attractiveness of the food policy issue, and then to advice them using scientifically-based evidence about the urban food system as well as the development of effective policy instruments (see more, Fesenfeld, 2016). In essence, city policymakers and administrators need to start seeing themselves as “political entrepreneurs” of the food system who can actually change the way we produce and consume food products. If cities see themselves as political entrepreneurs, they can create incentives and regulations (e.g. in public canteens) that foster technological and societal innovations and might eventually lead to transformative spillovers beyond niche local markets. In other words, cities that perceive themselves as political entrepreneurs of the food system can effectively leverage resources, act as innovative lab-settings and moderate competing interests during the sustainability transformation of the food system.

Evidence-based policymaking is the basis for the successful establishment of official food policy councils that are integrated into the urban governance system. The system of official food policy councils facilitates controversial and transparent discussion between economic, political and civil society actors with diverse views and interests. Only in this open space can fruitful discussion and innovative ideas emerge. Fora should exist for the discussion of all important questions regarding urban food systems in a transparent and fact-based manner. Such fora, composed of practitioners from all parts of the food system and advised by scientific experts, will be suitable for preparing those decisions finally taken by the administration and political representatives. Administrative staff and political representatives themselves often do not have the expertise and the capacity to take far-reaching and future-oriented decisions in the face of the complexity of the entire food system. For example, an urban food council composed of local experts and stakeholders could successfully develop effective measures for increasing the production and procurement of sustainable food products along the full regional supply chain. Of course, it is of the highest importance that these official food policy councils are representatively composed so that no special interests can influence the counseling and decision-making process in their favor. Backdoor politics should and can be prevented through the construction of official and transparent food policy councils. Introducing such a format of official urban food policy councils throughout continental Europe offers manifold opportunities: such entrepreneurs of food systems could facilitate exchange between cities, thereby increasing the chance that innovative solutions to the most pressing problems of modern food systems will be formulated. In other words, urban food policy councils are a governance innovation of central importance in the transformation of food systems locally as well as globally.

The need for innovation to govern urban food systems

This governance innovation shows how cities can manage a complex and cross-cutting policy topic even though their current governments are all too often vested in conflicts over turf and burdened by rigid administrative structures. As shown in a recent study (Fesenfeld, 2016) a most promising option would be to set-up and manage official urban food councils that are under the direct supervision of city mayors. This would increase the chances of getting all the actors involved that are required for developing systematic, realistic and politically feasible food strategies. The study offers first insights into how actor-centered and institutional factors specifically influence the adoption and implementation of urban food policies. The study recommends, inter alia, the establishment of official, tri-sectoral food governance fora (urban food policy councils), the commissioning of urban food maps [1], and the employment of a central food coordination manager. Further (transdisciplinary) research is particularly needed to scrutinize the effectiveness of urban food policy councils as governance innovations for decision-making in cross-cutting policy domains like the food sector. Future studies should also advance urban food mapping methodologies that are able to both quantitatively and qualitatively assess (complex) urban food systems. Such mapping is essential for facilitating evaluation of the success of urban food strategies and policy measures aimed at fostering the sustainability of the food system.

All in all, urban food governance is an innovative policy field that may help to overcome the most pressing challenges facing today’s food and agricultural systems. Urban policymakers and stakeholders are increasingly aware of their power to steer food and agricultural markets towards sustainability. Today there is a unique chance for civil society actors and the broader public to engage in discussions about food policy and to put pressure on local governments to set-up representative and official food governance systems.

[1] The following study from FIBL (Moschitz, Oehen, Rossier, & Wirz, 2015) describes a promising quantitative approach to measuring consumption of regional food products.


List of References 

Carey, J. Urban and Community Food Strategies. The Case of Bristol. Int. Plan. Stud. 18, 111–128 (2013).

Fesenfeld, L. P. (2016). Governing Urban Food Systems in the Long-Run: Comparing Best Practices in Sustainable Food Procurement Regulations. GAIA Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society 25, 260–270.

Fesenfeld, L. P., Schmidt, T. S. & Schrode, A. Climate policy for short- and long-lived pollutants. Nat. Clim. Chang 8, 933-936 (2018). URL: https://rdcu.be/bajBO

Foley, J. A., Ramankutty, N., Brauman, K. A., Cassidy, E. S., Gerber, J. S., Johnston, M., … Zaks, D. P. M. (2011). Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478, 337–342.

Godfray, H. C. J., Beddington, J. R., Crute, I. R., Haddad, L., Lawrence, D., Muir, J. F., ... & Toulmin, C. (2010). Food security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science 118, 53-83.

Mansfield, B. & Mendes, W. Municipal food strategies and integrated approaches to urban agriculture: Exploring three cases from the global north. Int. Plan. Stud. 18, 37–60 (2013).

Moragues, A. et al. Urban Food Strategies. The rough guide to sustainable food systems. (2013).

Morgan, K. The rise of urban food planning. Int. Plan. Stud. 18, 1–4 (2013).

Morgan, K. Nourishing the city: The rise of the urban food question in the Global North. Urban Stud. 52, 1379–1394 (2015).

Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. Reducing food ’ s environmental impacts through producers and consumers, Science 992, 987–992 (2018).

Springmann, M., Godfray, H. C. J., Rayner, M., & Scarborough, P. Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 15, 4146–4151 (2016).

Springmann, M. et al. Mitigation potential and global health impacts from emissions pricing of food commodities. Nat. Clim. Chang. 7, 69-74 (2017).

Springmann, M. et al. Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature 562, 519-525 (2018).

United Nations (UN), 2018, retrieved at https://population.un.org/wup/

World Health Organization (WHO), 2017, retrieved at http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/obesity/en/


You can find a detailed article on the topic here: https://www.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/international-relations-dam/Publications/Documents/2016/GAIA_Lukas_Fesenfeld_12_2016.pdf