University of Leeds | News > Science > Feeding Leeds: A fair and self-sustaining food system for the city

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A bold vision for feeding the population of Leeds would transform the city into a far more food secure, fair and sustainable place to live.

Analysts
from the University of Leeds’ Global
Food and Environment Institute
studied the city’s food system to assess its
resilience in the face of supply chain and delivery disruptions caused by severe
weather, climate change and events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit.

The
urban food system includes all the activities involved in the production,
distribution and consumption of food within a city.

They
mapped and analysed publicly available data relating to agricultural production
and human health in the metropolitan district and discovered that 48.4% of the
city’s total calorific demand can be met by current commercial food production
activities.

This is relatively
high for such an urbanised space, but there is little diversity in what is
being produced. Three cereal crops (wheat, barley, oats) dominate the Leeds
production system, reflecting a post-war food system that focused on energy
supply. This means that most of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the city
are transported in from elsewhere.

The
researchers’ findings also show that the most deprived areas of the district,
which have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, are
also likely to be the first to be
impacted by supply disruptions. The
resulting food shortages can increase prices, and people on low incomes may not
have the option to travel to larger supermarkets or afford to bulk buy.

The
researchers say there are no quick and easy options for significantly
increasing the security, fairness, or sustainability of the food system
supplying Leeds.

But they say the metropolitan district’s sizeable number of
farmers, manufacturers, suppliers, and food services could all contribute to
improving its food resilience by creating a system which provides easy access
to healthy foods, shares energy, reuses water and nutrients and repurposes local
infrastructure and resources.

Caroline Orfila, who led the study, published today in the
journal Food Security, is Professor of Plant Biochemistry and Nutrition
in the
School of Food Science and Nutrition. She said: “Our
work demonstrates the inequalities in food production and dietary health.

“The local food production system can only provide around 50% of
the calories needed by the population, highlighting that ‘eating local’ is not
currently possible for everyone. In particular, the local food system would not
provide sufficient protein or fats. The lack of food diversity suggests current
food production is also unlikely to meet vitamin and mineral requirements.

“Any disruptions to food
production, distribution or retail, from flooding, longer term climate change,
COVID-19 or Brexit, is likely to impact those in deprived areas the most.

“Disruptions
tend to cause shortages in some food categories, which then increase food
prices. People on low incomes spend more of their income on food; any increases
in food prices will limit what they can afford to buy.

“People
in deprived areas have limited choice of where to buy foods, they may not have
private transport to access larger supermarkets or access to online shopping.
They may also not have the cash flow or storage space to buy items in bulk,
relying on what is available.

“Interventions
are needed to level up those areas.”

Researchers
identified more than 1,000km2 of warehousing, derelict land, and
unused floor space in abandoned buildings, with direct or possible connections
to renewable energy and water.

Half of this land lay near food banks, community centres and numerous food processors and
outlets.

The land could
potentially be used for no waste innovative farming techniques, including vertical food farms, where
crops are grown in vertically stacked layers; green walls, where plants grow on
vertical surfaces, and rooftop agriculture, where fresh produce is grown on top
of buildings.

The study found that within the metropolitan district of Leeds there is
substantial food activity with more than 5,500 businesses and charities
supplying fresh and prepared food, including fast food providers, restaurants,
and supermarkets. Some 23 food banks are located within the inner-city area.

There are almost 100 hectares of allotment controlled by
Leeds City Council, and approximately 39 hectares of private allotment and
community growing areas in the Leeds Metropolitan District.

Lead author Dr Paul Jensen, also from Leeds’ School of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds, said: “We found there are numerous underutilised city assets that could be
incorporated into a resource efficient urban food ecosystem, which could
include a mix of vertical farming, hydroponics, or more conventional growing
methods.

“Most notably, many of these areas are within
those suffering most from food poverty, diet related health issues and a
limited intake of fruit and vegetables – those who are usually the first to
suffer during a crisis situation.”

The research identified locations for ‘food hubs’
that connect producers to consumers and discuss the need for a coordinated
approach between producers, government, charitable groups and consumers in
creating a more sustainable food system.

The
research was carried out with FoodWise Leeds, a not-for-profit campaign by Leeds
City Council, the University of Leeds, businesses and charities to address food
health and sustainability issues.

FoodWise
Leeds co-ordinator Sonja Woodcock, said: “This past year has highlighted how
vulnerable the local food system is. Taking a coordinated approach and
implementing available policy levers, such as including local food within
public procurement contracts, increasing access to land for both commercial and
community food growing, as well as investing in cooking and food skills will
help to create a more resilient and fair local food system.”

Professor
Orfila added: “These findings are significant because it shows the vulnerability and
inequality of UK cities and urban food systems. The situation in Leeds mirrors
the situation in many other cities worldwide.”

Professor
Steve Banwart, Global Food and Environment Institute Director said: “The
results of this study provide essential evidence to guide access to nutrition
for the entire population. The project
dramatically changes our view of what is a city and what is a farm and
catalyses our partnerships to build a more resilient community.”

Further
information

Picture:
A hydroponic vertical farm

‘Mapping the Production-Consumption Gap of an
Urban Food System: An Empirical Case Study of Food Security and Resilience’ and
is published on 8 February in the journal Food Security. It is available online here:

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12571-021-01142-2
.

For
media enquiries, contact University of Leeds press office via pressoffice@leeds.ac.uk.

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