Across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of reliable food systems that provide healthy and affordable diets to all. That is true also in Asia where cities, large and small, contend with a wide range of food-related issues on a daily basis but often lack a dedicated or coherent set of food policies.
Arguing that food systems are central to the topmost priorities of Asian cities, from nurturing jobs and businesses that are core to a city’s identity to managing waste and congestion, a new World Bank book calls for cities to “get smart to get RICH”—that is, to pursue policies that foster reliable, inclusive, competitive, and healthy (“RICH”) food systems that are better aligned with cities’ contemporary challenges and aspirations.
“RICH Food, Smart City seeks to put food on the menu of urban decision-makers in Asia to generate positive feedback loops between healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy economies,” said Martien van Nieuwkoop, Global Director of Agriculture and Food, World Bank.
Based on the first systematic survey of urban food policies in 170 Asian cities in 21 countries, undertaken in partnership with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the study finds that only 8% of surveyed cities are “food-smart”—intervening in the food system in ways that are forward-looking, holistic, and inclusive. Nearly three-fourths are either at an early stage of effective engagement or fully in reactive mode, responding to problems as they emerge. A reactive approach could prove very costly, both in terms of realized risks and missed opportunities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has served to highlight the essential functions of urban food supply chains and businesses and the vulnerability of urban populations to food insecurity. Even before lockdowns and other responses to the pandemic impacted people’s purchasing power and disrupted supply chains, many residents of cities, especially low-income ones, faced challenges accessing safe, affordable, and nutritious food. In 2016, some 23 percent of urban residents in emerging Asia surveyed by the FAO reported being food insecure. Chronic malnutrition is similarly widespread. More than one-quarter of children under five are stunted in urban Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Lao PDR, Nepal, and Pakistan, indicating that shortcomings in urban food systems could curtail the economic prospects of many Asian cities and their youngest generation.
Moving from a reactive approach to a more proactive management of food systems holds considerable promise for urban policy makers wishing to make progress on issues that matter to citizens, from food safety and affordability to good health, job opportunities, freedom from pollution and congestion, prosperity, and livability. Asia’s growing middle class and its demand for higher quality, more diverse, and convenient foods also provides enormous business, employment and revenue-raising opportunities for cities.
However, risks associated with urban food systems and changing demand patterns will need to be managed carefully. These include risks related to disease, biosafety, and environmental degradation. In 2017, the proportion of deaths attributed to dietary risks reached 30 percent in East Asia, 22 percent in Southeast Asia, and 19 percent in South Asia, according to the Global Burden of Disease. Overweight and obesity levels are growing nationally, and obesity prevalence tends to be three or four times higher in urban areas than in rural ones.
Many cities in emerging Asia are national if not international ‘hotspots’ for biosecurity and food safety risks, food waste, and the accumulation of plastic packaging waste. The rapid encroachment of cities into natural ecosystems and peri-urban cropland also raises risks to cities’ fresh food supply. Well-informed urban leadership is much needed to turn these urban, national, and even broader food system challenges around.
RICH Food, Smart City argues that city leaders and planners have a key role to play in molding the future trajectory of food systems and offers many examples of how they might do so. The study addresses cities of different sizes and resource levels, presents a menu of potential solutions, and provides concrete illustrations of the many policies and programs that Asia’s cities can learn from and implement to improve food system outcomes. For example,
- Measures to protect peri-urban cropland and develop short supply chain marketing channels can sustain a critical source of fresh produce to cities, contributing to urban productivity, resilience, and circular economies.
- Investments in upgrading community markets that provide fresh food can help ensure more equitable access to nutrition and reduce the incidence of foodborne and chronic illness.
- Neighborhood food loss and waste partnerships and initiatives can support waste prevention, secondary food use, composting, and the bioeconomy.
- Institutional food procurement and marketing standards, paired with technical support to food businesses, can exert significant influence over food markets and dietary patterns in ways that support public health and welfare, the environment, and local economies.
With their power to influence the uses of space and the built environment, to regulate and stimulate private enterprise, and to shape public service delivery, cities’ embrace of food policy can be game-changing, according to the book.
“Municipal leaders are uniquely placed to develop and pursue integrated food policies that respond to citizens’ needs and boost cities’ overall resilience” said Gayatri Acharya, study co-author and Lead Economist, World Bank. “We hope this study will inspire them to seek ambitious solutions for sustainable and healthy food systems that improve the welfare of urban populations.”