Urban Food Systems: Closing the Food Life Cycle  Add To Calendar

Speaker: Thomas Theis, Director of the Institute for Environmental Science and Policy, UIC
Host: BassiriRad
  • Date(s): Tuesday, 11/28 12:00 PM to Tuesday, 11/28 1:00 PM
  • Campus Address: 4289 SEL, 840 West Taylor

Human achievement has advanced through the progressive development of food systems and urbanization: Urban growth and its corresponding efficiencies thrive through innovation, made possible by the multiple connections created by large cities. These have produced dynamic agglomeration economies and forms of specialization and interaction between cities and their agricultural hinterlands while also promoting the efficient production and consumption of food.

At the same time, the complexity of modern food systems can just as easily compromise their ability to sustain an urbanized population. Large-scale food production has always been prone to disruption through periodic events including over-cropping, drought, pestilence, and societal upheaval. However, modern food systems involve complex spatial and functional interdependencies that introduce potential new threats to food productivity, safety, and distribution particularly at the points where subsystems intersect.  Such threats include elevated food costs, loss of biodiversity, water and soil quality impairment, material (especially water) demands, food wastage and nutrient losses, the multiple impacts of climate change, poor food distribution and limited choices leading to “food deserts” with associated health consequences (particularly obesity), and the general alienation of consumers (who are mostly in urban regions) from producers (rural regions). The sustainability paradigm requires the integration of these health, environmental, social, and economic dimensions of food systems.

In response, over the past two decades, there has been a growing scholarly and policy focus on addressing these consequences through building more resilient and sustainable food systems. Often referred to as food system “relocalization”, such a focus generally aims to alter the relationship of food production to urban systems through greater emphasis on innovations in local food production, harnessing of synergies with waste and energy byproducts, developing new models for the distribution and acquisition of healthy food, understanding the social and cultural contexts that influence dietary choices, and reducing policy disincentives to the consumption of healthy food. But history suggests that relocalization itself needs to be understood as a complex set of interventions with their own potential consequences, in turn requiring the development and evaluation of innovations and practices towards sustainable food systems.

This presentation will address a suite of intersecting issues about urban food systems that includes barriers to urban food production, impacts of shifts in agricultural markets on urban food availability and affordability, impacts on agricultural commodity markets of urban food production, financial models and economic viability of urban food production and distribution, material and energy requirements, waste generation, multifunctional models of urban productivity, the enhancement and tradeoffs associated with ecosystem services, policies that result in better human nutrition and health, and the effect of urban agriculture on social, behavior, and cultural values.