21st Feb 2024


Healthy people, healthy landscapes: a look into local food systems

  • The 'Triple H Approach': healthy people, healthy landscape and a healthy climate (Photo: Unsplash)
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Thursday is 'Veggie Day'. Schools have gardens in their backyards. Daily food surpluses are coordinated and sent to social organisations for those who need it most. And shops and restaurants can buy organic and local products such as fruit and vegetables from small farmers in the region through an online platform.

These are just some of the outcomes that Ghent has been experiencing for years thanks to its 'Ghent en Garde' [Ghent In Front] initiative. The urban food policy of this northwestern Belgian city of around 250,000 inhabitants is one of the most pioneering on the entire European continent — and has succeeded in making seven percent of its population vegetarian.

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Over the years, its various efforts have saved thousands of tonnes of CO2 emissions, while its population has shifted towards healthier and more sustainable eating and consumption habits.

For example, Vanier, the platform that connects local farmers with their buyers, has managed to shorten supply chains in the region, cutting CO₂ emissions by 36 percent in the short term, although they estimate their long-term potential to be up to 79 percent.

And its online food forum lists more than 1,000 sustainable initiatives, ranging from food composting to plant-based solutions.

Most importantly, such policies represent an important idea: cities and their regions can become more connected and promote healthy and sustainable food systems, the Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) — a network of over 2,500 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development — tells EUobserver.

They call it the 'Triple H Approach': healthy people, healthy landscape and healthy climate, says Peter Defranceschi, head of their global food programme.

"Cities have a huge impact on how food can be produced, distributed, consumed and disposed of," Angèle Tasse, ICLEI's sustainable food systems officer, told EUobserver.

Cities are the biggest polluters (70 percent of greenhouse gases are emitted in cities), but also the ones who have the upper hand in awarding public contracts for school and hospital meals, managing food waste, etc.

As both experts explain, proposals such as plant-based diets are not only about reducing pollutant emissions, but also about increasing animal welfare, generating local employment, reducing food waste, or promoting healthier and more affordable diets (by reducing the amount of meat and fish consumed).

Doing it locally also means reducing intermediaries, packaging, or pollution — by promoting so-called 'last-mile' transport systems.

Another example. In Vienna, the criteria guiding the award of public procurement contracts were changed to take greater account of sustainability and ecology. By 2022, one third of the city's food preparations for pensioners and hospitals, and half of schools and kindergartens, used organically-farmed food. And €1.5m and 15,000 tonnes of CO² have been saved annually thanks to the new contracts.

However, the will of these cities is not always enough, Tasse stresses. "Cities can play a key role, but they also need the support of the national government to take ambitious action". More cooperation and dialogue at local, regional and national levels will be necessary to bring true transformation, she stresses.

The potential is there. This is also proven by a study showing that 10 percent of the production of legumes, roots and tubers, and vegetable crops, could be produced from urban agriculture.

Another option that is increasingly gaining ground is lupin, a high-protein legume that, besides being a popular snack in Mediterranean cuisine, can also be used as a substitute for soya or as a base for creating plant-based meals.

"Lupins can be established as an alternative protein crop, capable of promoting socio-economic growth and environmental benefits in Europe," concludes the article 'The future of lupin as a protein crop in Europe', published in the scientific magazine 'Frontiers in Plant Science'.

However, its cultivation is not yet sufficient to guarantee a steady supply to the food industry, the piece also points out.

Lupin is mainly harvested on the oceanic continent, which accounts for three-quarters of total production, while Europe accounts for less than one-fifth.

In 2020, the world's top ten producers included EU countries such as Poland, Germany, Greece, and France. On a smaller scale, it is gaining market share in others member states such as Denmark, where from 2015 to 2018 alone its production increased by more than 50 percent.

"Lupins have high commercial potential, especially in markets where consumers are focused on local, healthy, protein-rich and plant-based food," notes one of the working documents of the European project PROTEIN2FOOD, focused on the development of high quality food protein.

In this sense, the EU is also working on its farm-to-fork strategy to support member states in their transition towards sustainable food systems. And its funding is currently boosting projects such as FoodSHIFT 2030, which have opened nine living labs across Europe to research citizen initiatives that can be scaled up, respond to social and environmental challenges, and be economically sustainable in the future.

Their lab in Poland is creating a model that allows young people to create social gardens within cities, where they could implement circular economy solutions or plant-based diets.

The one in the Greater Copenhagen area of Denmark aims to create greater cooperation between urban and rural areas in the region, in order to transform current food systems into more environmentally sustainable ones.

They are not the only ones. Other European projects such as SchoolFood4Change work on an equally important part: education and social awareness of a new food culture.

Some changes are small. In Sweden, when the youngest pupils were presented with a 'Vegetarian' option in their canteens, they turned it down. However, when the options were listed simply as one and two, instead of vegetarian and conventional, the children started to choose the meat-free option.

"We are also working on how to present these healthier options to the children, so they can become an equally conventional choice," explains Tasse. ICLEI is the coordinator of the project which, in addition to introducing healthier diets in schools, educates new generations about the origin and impact of everything they eat.

And although each initiative is different, this and the previous ones have one thing in common: the seed (the concept) is planted from the bottom (or early on), and grows or scales up to where it can become a reality: be it at the community, local, regional or national level.

This article first appeared in EUobserver's magazine, Alt-Protein: Eating away climate change?, which you can now read in full online.


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