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Q&A: Making Asia's Cities 'RICH' and Food Smart


The Badami Bagh fruit and vegetable market, seen here, is the oldest and largest wholesale market in Lahore, Pakistan. (Photo by Flore de Preneuf/ World Bank)

Q&A with the authors of "RICH Food, Smart City", Emilie Cassou, Steven Jaffee, Gayatri Acharya, and Elyssa Ludher

Food is central to the life of cities but according to a new book by the World Bank, urban food policy has fallen through the cracks. Based on a first-ever survey of food policies in South and East Asian cities, RICH Food, Smart City argues that most cities in Asia lack an explicit and coherent set of food policies. The book calls for cities of all sizes to “get smart to get RICH”—that is, to pursue “smarter” food policy in order to foster reliable, inclusive, competitive, and healthy (“RICH”) food systems better aligned with cities’ challenges and aspirations.

The book’s authors recently sat down to answer some questions.

Why should cities be paying more attention to food as a matter of policy? 

The short answer is that food is a defining aspect of city life and that food system outcomes are central to most cities’ top priorities, from jobs growth and economic vibrance, to resilience, security, greenness, and livability.

Food shapes cityscapes and urban culture, and in the best of cases, cities’ reputation. Food is one of the key drivers of movement of goods and people in and about urban spaces. Whether formally or not, large numbers of people draw livelihoods from the urban food economy. Food fuels cities, but it also sometimes breeds and feeds disease. Their reliance on purchased food can be a source of vulnerability. Food is often the largest source of municipal solid waste. Furthermore, in Asia, urban expansion is a significant driver of agricultural land-use change and a source of stress for the ecosystem services and resources upon which farming depends.

Why has food policy not been a focus of Asian cities?

To some extent it has been: cities everywhere and of all sizes are addressing food system issues on a daily basis. The issue is that most cities in South and East Asia, at least among the 170 we surveyed for the book, lack an explicit and forward-looking set of food policies. Holistic and inclusive approaches were found in only 8 percent of cities.

While there is no single explanation, one broad observation is that in much of Asia, food policy has largely been under the jurisdiction of powerful ministries of agriculture focused on production and food security. Traditionally, food policy has been dominated by concerns about food security and, in particular, the adequacy of food supplied by an agricultural sector long viewed as synonymous with rural space.

But the nature of food-related challenges has changed. For example, food insecurity has, by and large, graduated from being a challenge of calorie availability to one of food access and diet quality. Furthermore, contemporary food policy is now having to address the food system’s ties to climate change, pollution, resource stress, biome and biodiversity loss, communicable and noncommunicable disease, inequality, and animal welfare. Gone are the days when food was the sole concern of national ministries of agriculture.

National food systems are urbanizing driven in large part by rural-to-urban migration and the growth of urban populations. Rural environments and lifestyles have also urbanized, giving the phenomenon still broader reach. Even agriculture itself—traditionally, the defining activity of rural space—has become increasingly enfolded in urban spaces.

The food system changes that are taking place also portend tremendous opportunities for urban job creation, innovation, investment, and business, and some cities have been quicker than others to court these.

What has changed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The pandemic has brought to light many opportunities to do things better, and for cities, food policy has been one of them.

In early days, we saw panic buying and some temporary curtailing of trade. Quickly, social distancing and movement control orders directly and indirectly caused supply chain disruptions, including in downstream and often urban segments of food supply chains. And over time, the domino effects of forced economic shutdown and job loss have created a surge of food insecurity. In parallel, the zoonotic nature of the pandemic has heightened concerns about food safety and market hygiene, though they were already present before the crisis.

By the same token, the pandemic also seems to have stimulated strong growth in takeout and packaged food sales. In one sense, this reflects how urban food systems have shown a capacity for innovation and resilience in the face of adversity. But on the flipside, some of the promising business models of the moment are also adding to the massive plastics and pollution problems that cities were already having to come to terms with.

What can cities do to engage further in urban food policy?

Cities lack the resources and reach of national governments but make up for it in their capacity to be nimble, experimental, cross-cutting, and closely connected to business and citizen communities. As we’ve seen in climate action and other spheres, cities can exert significant national and even international influence by joining forces through networks of cities.

Cities have extensive power to shape their food systems through things like land-use zoning, investment in municipal infrastructure, business technical assistance and licensing, institutional food procurement, education and professional training, and the implementation of social safety nets.

The pandemic has brought to light the need for more investment and planning in relation to the last miles of food supply chains including Asia’s popular “wet” markets, which are important sources of nutritious and affordable foods. It has also reasserted the importance of chronic disease prevention, which implies more work on healthy diets, and for many cities, concerted efforts to protect periurban cropland and support short food supply chains.

Cities are also going to play a critical role in shaping food systems and diets that address climate change. Cities have already emerged as some of the most outspoken and active entities addressing this defining issue of our times. Many have discovered that they can act on many fronts, lead by example, and together weigh heavily. Yet, from a climate perspective, city mobilization around food is still an opportunity for the taking. Cities are being called upon to reinvent their food cultures in more plant-centric and wholesome directions that will keep them and the world around them healthy and strong. This is one of the keys to climate stabilization.

How can the World Bank work with countries and cities to take this agenda forward?

For the World Bank, one key to advancing the urban food policy agenda will be learning to work across sectors, borrowing from one another’s playbooks and approaches. The World Bank already has deep experience working with cities to develop and modernize transportation networks, housing, waste management and sanitation infrastructure, to enhance critical services, and prepare for disasters. It also has decades of experience supporting agricultural development and food security, though largely with a rural focus to date.

As far as our government counterparts are concerned, both national and lower-level authorities, including municipalities, will have roles to play in developing urban food policy and building “RICH” food systems in urban settings. The book includes examples of actions that have been taken by a range of stakeholders. While context-relevance is an important feature of good urban food policy, there is no need—or indeed capacity—for every city to reinvent the wheel; and this is where national ministries have to come in, laying out frameworks and blueprints for all cities to draw on, for example. They can also help put in place requirements and incentive structures that empower municipal leaders to pursue “smarter” food system policies and pay attention to food policy in the first place. 

For most cities, large and small, the process of developing a coherent set of policies has to be an organic one that grows out of the challenges and opportunities that cities are already facing and mobilized around. Successful urban food system governance rarely develops from the top down, and meaningful engagement does not need to start with a masterplan. Some of the leading cities in matters of food system governance started out by addressing burning local food system questions and engaging a widening set of stakeholders and municipal agencies in deliberation and decision-making. This playbook is accessible to all cities, and the menu of actions they can begin with is long.