Six lessons from transforming city food systems

Laura Collacott
Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Resource type:
Case studies and tools

Given that 80% of all food will be consumed in cities by 2050, and around 40% of cropland is peri-urban areas, cities are critically important in sparking the shift towards a system fit for the long term. City governments have significant purchasing power which can be leveraged to nudge food systems in the right direction. They have the authority to convene value-chain actors, alongside the policy levers to effect change. Citizens, retailers, and service providers are in close proximity, making new types of business models possible, from rooftop hydroponic farms to menu design using last minute surpluses, and organic waste reuse for livestock feed.

For these and other reasons, cities are uniquely positioned to catalyse a wider shift to a circular economy. They are drivers of change.

Three years ago, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation began work with 15 city governments to mobilise progress towards a circular economy for food, and demonstrate a circular food system in action.  Each city has taken a unique approach tailored to its own specific context – vital for success – but broad lessons can be observed that make it easier for any conurbation to get started:

  • Begin by mapping the system: To change a system, you have to trace problems back to their roots. Zooming out to assess the full system allows decision makers to do just that, and defines the challenge you’re trying to address. 
  • Develop infrastructure, awareness, and digital tools to reduce food waste: Cities accumulate large volumes of valuable food by-products and waste. But they also have the scale needed to develop ways of using and redistributing surplus edible food, while turning the remaining inedible by-products into new products, 
  • Provide funds that propel innovation
  • Leveraging cities’ unique buying power can accelerate progress: Given their scale and influence, fast-moving consumer goods companies (FMCGs), retailers, city-schools, hospitals and public institutions have substantial influence on their local and global food system.
  • …especially towards food production that has regenerative outcomes: By deploying their substantial buying power, cities can support the shift to this form of farming, especially in the peri-urban area within 20km of the city boundary. 
  • Transformation can’t be driven by cities alone: While they are important actors, cities are part of a constellation of stakeholders. To progress towards system-level change, all actors – brands, retailers, cities, and policymakers – need to collaborate. 


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This resource presents evidence or data but has not been peer reviewed