Food production in a planetary city

SPIN Unit is a research and innovation practice dedicated to discovering urban values. In this piece they discuss the challenges of food production in a planetary city. In this case the term “planetary city” refers to a city that lives according to the “planetary diet,” one that would make it possible to respect the 1.5-degree target set in the Paris Agreement, i.e. much less meat and dairy, and a much greater focus on fruits, vegetables, and plant protein. The goal of the project was to look at the various challenges to the food supply chain in a changing climate and crumbling ecosystems.

These food supply chains have come to their current state, their current length, over decades, of centuries perhaps, through all sorts of political, social, cultural, and economic processes, and carry with them a range of burdens: vague producer-consumer relationships, and a host of negative environmental externalities, among many others.. […]

There are an estimated 2.5 billion people, in over 1,600 cities, living in a country where there is expected to be at least a 10% decline in on of maize, rice, soy, and wheat (the highest produced and consumed crops globally) by 2050. […]

In this future scenario, the four pillars of food security — availability, accessibility, utilization, and stability — will be hard to maintain: decreased yields will make food less available, which will increase food prices, making it less accessible, and these trajectories will be happening at unprecedented rates, making full utilization and stability less trivial.

The hypothesis is that a shortened food chain, focused on local production and circularity, would be more resilient and less polluting. The article cites the European Green Deal’s Farm to Fork strategy and the City of Tallinn’s initiatives to encourage urban gardening and reduce animal protein consumption. It also suggests that cities should invest in urban farming and reclaim space from obsolete infrastructure to create enterprises that value the benefits of a circular economy.

The article goes into some detail on how they mapped out Tallinn and the potential changes to its landscape to find more food growing land, considered the change in diet mentioned above, and how much total land would be required.

Uniquely, as opposed to a lot of what can be read in many places, they come to the conclusion that it’s impossible for Tallinn to achieve such a goal. Which is not surprising, since they weren’t looking at a city with a short regional or country level food chain, but at a city-based one that could be autonomous. Still, this somewhat extreme exercices did prove that there is still a lot that can be done in cities to greatly raise the volume of food that can be hyper-locally produced.

The lesson from such projects, and many others, is not that everything can be local, but rather that everything can be rethought to address the new climate imperatives and biodiversity catastrophe. It’s about finding a new balance that tones down (way down) the habits of extraction and finds paths to a stable equilibrium with nature.

Image: Tallinn community gardens by Artjom Kutuzov.