Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s new food initiative targets ‘systems level change’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

London is one of three cities, alongside New York, and São Paulo, working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation ©GettyImages-Se Yong Jang  EyeEm
London is one of three cities, alongside New York, and São Paulo, working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation ©GettyImages-Se Yong Jang EyeEm
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is bringing together multinational food companies and three flagship cities – London, New York, and São Paulo – to deliver “systems level change” that recognises the need to increase food production while addressing the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.

The three-year project has secured the backing of food companies including Danone, Mizkan, Nestlé, Novamont, Veolia, and Yara, along with philanthropic funder, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

The launch of the initiative, which kicked off at the EAT Forum in Stockholm this week, follows the publication of the Ellen MacArthur’s report Cities and Circular Economy for Food​, at the World Economic Forum in January 2019​. The report concluded that to meet the dietary needs of a growing global population, while restoring biodiversity and addressing the climate crisis, the food system requires “fundamental redesign”​.

Food production is responsible for almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Foundation added that “mismanaged”​ fertilisation and manure exacerbate air pollution, contaminate soil and leach into water supplies. These factors - and others associated with today’s food system – place consumers at risk, even when they are trying to make healthy choices, the Foundation argued.

Cities can play a ‘huge’ role

"To create the kind of systems level change needed… it is vital we bring together parties from across the system. By 2050 as much as 80% of all food consumption will happen in cities. They can play a huge role in transforming the system and become places of focused and orchestrated action,”​ Emma Chow, project manager of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Food Initiative, told FoodNavigator.

In three flagship cities, the Foundation will lead “major food system projects”​ to demonstrate how a circular economy vision for food can be achieved at scale.

The Food initiative will develop solutions based on three principles: source food grown regeneratively and locally; make the most of food through circular models; and design and market healthier food products. 

It is the first time cities and companies have collaborated in this way.

Chow said that collaboration between municipalities and corporations is necessary to develop circular economy models that work at scale. “There is a need for companies to put in place solutions that regenerate natural systems and design out waste. For those solutions to succeed at scale we need the right enabling conditions, which is why municipal and regional policy-makers are crucial.”

Through the programme, the Foundation will bring participants together “regularly”​ over the next three years to “share learnings”.

While much of the world’s food production happens in rural areas, Chow insisted that urban settings have a vital role to play.

“There is an opportunity to use cities’ massive demand power to have an extremely positive impact on wider food production, which will mostly continue to be in rural areas. By taking a demand-driven approach we can incentivise a widespread shift to regenerative farming practices that deliver huge benefits for rural areas, including the rebuilding and protection of soil health.”

According to the Foundation’s assessment, global adoption of regenerative farming, increased local sourcing, changes to the design and marketing of food, and waste prevention and cycling of by-products could cut annual greenhouse gas emissions by 4.3 billion tonnes of CO2 a year, the equivalent of taking one billion cars off the road permanently.

A significant re-think in food production methods could also help avert the degradation of 15 million hectares of arable land per year as well as deliver “significant reductions”​ on antimicrobial resistance, air pollution, water contamination and foodborne diseases.

Cities can unlock an opportunity of $700 billion by reducing edible food waste and by cycling by-products and organic materials, the Foundation calculated.

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