Food and the city

Cover "How to feed Tilburg"In the past two months a group of 5 Master students of Wageningen University carried out an exploratory study on food consumption in the city of Tilburg. This study was commissioned by the Environmental Federation of the province of Brabant (BMF). Tilburg has the ambition to become a climate neutral city in 2045, yet the issue of food is lacking in the city’s climate programme. Given the fact that approximately 40% of the urban citizen’s ecological footprint is related to food and that food production and transport make up a significant portion of a city’s CO2 emission, it will be impossible to become a climate neutral city without including a food strategy in the city’s climate programme. For this reason the BMF asked this group of students to calculate/estimate Tilburg’s total food consumption and to give a first impression of the food miles and food transport related CO2 emission of several food products (e.g. apple, sugar, sweet pepper, asparagus, milk, cucumber) for different outlets (e.g. a supermarket, a greengrocer, an organic supermarket and a farm shop). The food miles and related CO2 emissions were calculated on the basis of the products that were sold at each outlet end of March/beginning of April this year, so they only represent the situation at that moment in time. On Wednesday April 22 the group presented their findings.

Some findings I found interesting and/or intriguing:

  • The total weight of food and drinks consumed Tilburg’s population is 569633 kg per day or 2819 grams per person per day. The total daily consumption is equivalent to the amount of weight that can be transported by 14 big lorries, although one needs to realise that the weight (and size) of food packaging is not included in this calculation.
  • The largest portion of this amount are drinks (1462 grams per person per day), followed by dairy products, vegetables, bread and fruits (respectively 405, 137, 126 and 124 grams per person per day).
  • The products sold at the greengrocer and farm shop had significant lower levels of CO2 emission for food transport than the products sold at the other two outlets, predominantly because all the products sold at the first two outlets were produced relatively close to the outlet (thus relatively low food miles).
  • Together the food miles associated with food transport were highest for the 6 products in the supermarket, yet this did not result in the highest level of CO2 emission. This was highest for the 6 products sold by the organic supermarket, predominantly due to the fact that the sweet peppers were produced in Marocco and transported to the Netherlands by aircraft. The CO2 emission for food transport by airplane is 42 times that of transport by boat.

These findings gave rise to some critical comments and a wide range of interesting topics for future actions and research activities. The most obvious comment was that the complete life cycle of a product had to be taken into account to calculate CO2 emissions and this may lead to totally different figures for organics compared to conventional and for locally produced compared to imported. Most of the questions were about effective intervention strategies and the role of the municipality and civil society organisations. Although there were differences of opinion about the extent to which the municipality could influence food production, distribution and consumption practices, there was consensus about the fact that food has to be included in Tilburg’s climate strategy and that it is of the utmost importance to link the environmental impact of food production, distribution and consumption to other food-related issues such as health (in particular the rising obesity prevalence), employment (many urban residents are working in the urban food economy), sustainable (peri-)urban development (spatial integration of living, nature and food production) and social cohesion (building neighbourhoods through community gardening). This requires some sort of public-private coordination to align different (and sometimes competing) interests and policy domains. It would be worth examining if a multi-stakeholder-like network such as a food policy council (see for example Toronto’s food polic council) could facilitate the development and implementation of a food strategy for Tilburg as part of it’s overall climate programme.