City Region Food Systems, Part I – Conceptualization Blog post by Mike Hamm

CRFS Director Mike Hamm discusses contested issues that are linked to the challenges posed by growing urbanization. This is the first in a short series in which Hamm explores the value of city-region food systems, obstacles to their development.

May 26, 2015 - Author: Mike Hamm

The following was originally posted on the website of the Food Climate Research Network at the University of Oxford on May 20, 2015.

This post is written by Michael W. Hamm: C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture - Michigan State University and Director of the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems. Mike is also a Visiting Fellow of Mansfield College at the University of Oxford and an FCRN network member.


''I grew up in suburban St. Louis, MO in the 50’s and 60’s with a farm two blocks from my house.  This farm didn’t play a part in my daily food nor did I appreciate its presence beyond providing play spaces.  In the early 60’s the farm was sold.  My lasting memory is a burning house - the fire department’s expedient way of clearing the land for new housing.  To me it was just a large fire – not the end of someone’s livelihood or the end of that family’s connection to the land.  In centuries past (and currently in much of the developing world) there was an intimate food connection between a city and the surrounding peri-urban/rural region.  In the developed world, as exemplified in the U.S., there has been a great schism in this regional food bond as more and more distant places become primary food sources. 

We face a historic food challenge. global population growthreport from the United Nations highlights the growth trends of various sized cities (see adjacent figure). Today about four billion people live in cities- half in cities under 500,000.  There are 417 cities with 1-5 million people today and will be 558 in 2030.  During this time period cities over 500,000 will increase from 1,000 to 1,400.  This, I think, begs several questions.  How will all people in these cities have access to a daily, healthy diet and where will it come from?   Will all these people go through a nutrition transition (a diet higher in animal products and greatly increased calorie consumption) as incomes increase and will others improve their dietary patterns from the disease-promoting practices of today?  How will supply chains evolve to both increase livelihood opportunities and supply safe, nutritious food to all these city residents?  How will climate change and fresh water challenges differentially impact food security in different cities?  How will we manage the increased amounts of urban human and food waste? How do we move to food systems that are increasingly more sustainable as well as resilient? These contested questions with ideological, economic, and political overtones present wicked problems without turnkey answers or immediately recognizable solutions.

Since this is where the bulk of people will be living and where the greatest challenges will be in ensuring a safe and nutritious daily food supply, it makes sense to focus heavily on city regions.  This is beginning to happen, with a number of international organizations including FAOIUFNThe Princes Charities International Sustainability Unit and a host of others building a development agenda. However, moving from where we are to where we will be in 2030, 2040, or 2050 (or whatever year you wish to pick) looks very different across the world and within specific city regions.  In most of the developed world we have systematically (if unconsciously) dismantled regional food production, distribution, and processing infrastructure over the last century.


local foodIn a short series of postings, beginning with this one, I would like to start a conversation on the value of city region food systems as well as impediments to development.  I will explore the challenges, possible development principles, and impediments as well as offering thoughts on strategies I think could be used.  I will largely draw on the U.S. context for two reasons: first, it is the place I know best and second, the actions of its residents often reverberate across the globe.  Today I will explore ways to look at city region food systems – recognizing they will exist in a wide range of ecological, social, and political environments. 


There have been a number of proclamations regarding increased food needs this century.  It has been suggested that the world could require 70% more food produced by 2050.  This assumes two things: first that the land base exists to generate this level of food production (more on this in a later blog).  Second, it assumes that food waste is not reduced.  Third it assumes all populations will go through thenutrition transition – thereby requiring more land and resources per capita for food production.  What these proclamations of increased food production needs are typically devoid of, is reference to where this food will come from.  These burgeoning cities can try and follow the U.S. development pattern of food coming from more and more distant locations - with the location depending on climatic and economic ‘comparative advantages’.  In the U.S. this takes the form of concentrated production at various places within the country (recognizing it is 3,000 miles across the continental U.S.) as well as sourcing from nearby neighbors – especially Mexico.  Yet many of the current production centers will be increasingly stressed due to climate change, fresh water challenges, and local population pressures who themselves need and want food. 

There is another option: we could take a step back and re-evaluate the current situation in the developed world for what it is – a global system of production and distribution that works well for relatively small numbers of people over a relatively short period of time within a given set of environmental and resource availability conditions.  It works well in a setting where we can force the system’s resilience through an array of external inputs and ignore external consequences.   A purely global food system with unlimited access to inputs, however, doesn’t scale well to 9 billion people; and doesn’t work well when the environmental bill comes due.  Nor does it seem to ensure food access and security for everyone.


Exact strategies for improving food security while also improving the sustainability and resilience of city region food systems will be nuanced and situational.  Yet, I think there are food system characteristics to help us judge whether we are moving towards greater sustainability and resilience. For me these characteristics include:

  1. All a city region’s residents are food secure (FAO Definition from World Food Summit 1996: Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.).
  2. Food security becomes a community responsibility – with food security a right of all residents.
  3. Good livelihoods are available and enabled for a wide range of people, i.e. they receive, at minimum, livable wages.
  4. People eat within both ‘health’ and ‘sustainability’ guidelines.
  5. It is locally and regionally integrated – optimizing the localness while connected to larger food system networks (optimize – the amount and variety from regional sources will vary depending on, for example, population density, soils, climate, water, human skills).
  6. It is reasonably seasonal in nature – with decreased expectations that all foods are available throughout the year.
  7. A host of new opportunities are continuously developing.
  8. Diversity, flexibility and adaptability is a hallmark of the food system – e.g. in scale of production, in background of participants, in strategies of production, and in length of supply chains.
  9. External inputs to a region’s food system are minimized or eliminated.
  10. The natural resource base of the region’s food system is enhanced rather than degraded.
  11. The development of negative external effects (e.g. phosphorus and nitrogen flow via surface waters to other locations) are minimized and ultimately eliminated.


local Why not then a fresh approach in our politics, our thinking, our global development strategies, and our identities?  Why not a focus on city regions (of varying sizes) and an examination of the extent to which a diverse, culturally sound, healthy, and sustainably produced diet could be realized within these regions?  City region food systems operate in a historical, geographic, demographic, and environmental context – not all regions will have the same capacity to balance supply and demand internally.  City region food systems operate in a political context – often these regions will have multiple political jurisdictions and the national politics vary widely across the world.  I think of a city region or regionalized food system as one that optimizes the production, consumption and supply chain infrastructure of food within a defined region while integrating with larger regions as well as the national and global supply of food in a manner that provides a healthy, sustainably-produced diet to all a region’s inhabitants and improves livelihoods for many of the region’s population.  There is much to value about globalization and much to value about regionalization.  Regionally focused yet globally integrated, the world’s population can feed itself.


Using the New York metropolitan area and water as one small example of why to move in this direction is illustrative. In many ways this shows the U.S. at its most extreme – it is our largest metropolitan region and either quite a distance (e.g. fruits and vegetables) or a fair distance (e.g. grains) from its major food production points, either domestic or international. The New York Metropolitan area has anestimated 2015 population of 20.6 million people in total consuming about 186 billion kilograms of food per year (860 kilograms per person average in 2000  (not counting coffee, tea, alcohol).  Between 2010 and 2042 it is projected the New York Metropolitan Region will grow by 8.4%.  The region has an annual rainfall of 71-152 cm – it is not short of fresh water. 

We can look at the food water contained and transported for this region.  Let’s narrow this and focus on fruits and vegetables since, along with fluid milk, they have the greatest percentage of contained water.  In moving large amounts of produce from California and Mexico (3-4,000 miles away) to the New York City area we are basically moving water from relatively low water areas (California is in the midst of an historic drought) to a relatively high water area.  Fruits and vegetables have the most contained water (see ‘approx. water content/100 gm’ and ‘total water content/person/yr’ in table below – note in this table and the following narrative ‘water content’ of all crops/animals this is simply the water contained in the final product and NOT the water that is also used to produce it).  For the 2014 New York metro population there is about 8.7 billion liters of water in the consumed produce; in 2042 with population increases this rises to 9.4 billion liters. 

Let’s add a wrinkle.  Intake data relative to public health recommendations indicate Americans need to approximately double their fruit and vegetable consumption (while decreasing other components and total calories).  What if Americans started moving along a continuum of a healthier diet and increased fruit and vegetable consumption by 50% in 2042 – the shipped water would rise to 14.1 billion liters – about seventy times the water in all the grain consumed (on a weight basis); eight times that in the fluid milk consumed; and nearly fourteen times the water in the meat consumed (assuming a 25% per capita reduction in meat by 2042).

Food category

A bit of perspective – the average per capita U.S. direct water use for all purposes is 575 liters per day - those 14 billion liters are equivalent to the annual water use of a town of 67,000 (in the UK with much lower per capita water use the figure is 259,000 people).  It might make sense to both decrease the distance foods travels (especially high water foods) and get it from closer to home, especially in relatively high water regions.  For example, given the range of produce consumed (including a large amount of tropical fruits), let’s suggest that we could shift 50% of the consumption to production areas within 500 miles of the New York Metro region. This would markedly decrease the contained water coming from low water areas while providing access to a critical part of a healthy diet.  Although this is not a sufficient transformation for long-term global sustainability it is most likely a leap in the appropriate direction. 


Food hubsThese numbers are intended to give a sense of the relative differences a city region food production and distribution system can make.  I am also assuming that efficient aggregation and distribution systems, such as food hubs now developing across the U.S., will emerge to markedly improve regional distribution efficiency.  I also don’t wish to imply that fruits and vegetables should be the only foods that come from within a region – depending on the balance of land, climate, human skill and population density a broad range of foods could come from a city’s region.  For example, Chris Peters has done very nice work mapping potential food sheds for New York State.  Using boundaries different than the NY Metropolitan region (and in his case about 12 million people in New York-Newark or 60% of the overall metro region used above) he reported about 70% of the region’s total food needs (on a mass basis) could be provided from New York State if they focused on dairy, eggs, fruits and vegetables.    


Can we think about optimizing the sustainable production of foodstuffs within a city region?  Yes! The U.S. had very little food system regionalization at the beginning of this century and now much development activity is ongoing.  At a more micro scale we can ask - where would this food come from within the city region? 

Many have argued for stronger and more developed farming within the urban core.  While I think there is relevance to this argument it greatly depends on which urban core.   There is a difference between New York City’s five boroughs and Detroit, MI for example.  The former has a population of 8.5 million on 305 sq mi (789 km2) for a population density of 27,900 people/sq.mi (10,800/  The latter has 690,000 people on 139 sq mi (359 km2) for a population density of 5,000 people/sq.mi (1,900/ or 18% that of New York City.  It is reasonable that whether it is abandoned lots or other open space the potential for producing a significant percentage of the residents’ food is currently greater in Detroit than New York City.  We did a study analyzing the potential for Detroit to grow its own fruits and vegetables on publically owned, open and abandoned land.  We found, depending on yield assumptions, residents of the city could grow 76% of their vegetables and 42% of their fruit on far less vacant land than is currently in public holdings (recognizing that there are going to be issues to consider, including soil contamination, adjacent resident desires, people’s interest in producing at a significant market scale and so forth).  In NYC the potential would be far less – but not necessarily trivial.   As with most things the potential for core urban agriculture is determined by the local conditions.

If we move outside the core urban boundaries to the region, other realities take shape.  The New York Metropolitan area has a landmass of 4,495 sq.mi. (11,642 and 4,500 people per sq.mi. (1,800 per The Detroit Metropolitan area has a landmass of 1,337 sq. mi. (3,463 and 3,463 people per sq.mi. (1,100 per  In both cases the ‘city region’ with respect to its food system will need to move beyond the metropolitan-defined areas to include a larger swath of the landscape.  Even in a place like the New York Metro region with 20 million people there is reason for optimism in conceptualizing, developing and building political will for city region food systems.

local foodMy intention has been to provide a starting point for the notion of city region food systems that puts population and production needs in perspective.  My hope is that people will see this as an argument for the private sector, civil society and the public sector to jointly develop a reasonable set of strategies and directives to enable flourishing, sustainable and resilient regional food systems that are connected to larger regions (e.g. national) and the global food system.  A framework and incentives to develop optimized city region food systems (essentially ‘priming the pump’ for such systems) should be a policy priority for government.  Operationalizing these food systems is a task for the private sector, civil society and individuals based around such criteria as the eleven points outlined above. 


But who will grow all of this food in city regions currently lacking sufficient production?  Who will be able to grow crops different from the dominant crop profile in a region? Who will move into farming as current farmers age?  Who will be able to sustainably intensify production as fewer rural and peri-urban farmers supply the food to city regions?  Who will develop and manage the supply chain infrastructure to minimize waste and get this food to all residents?  Who will develop the recycling programs so that nutrients and carbon go back to the soil from which they came?  Who will insure the farmhouse is not burned to make way for the next development without considering the need for food production in proximity to where people live? I hope to address these and other issues in future postings.


You may contact Mike at


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