Opinions & Interviews
How the First Bottom-Up Food Policy Can Be Born in Rome
According to the United Nations, over 55% of the global population lives in urban environments today, and the global trend continues to grow, with projections indicating that the percentage will reach 68% by 2050. In our country, this threshold was already passed in 2018, and today more than 70% of Italians live in urbanized contexts. Thus, in a perspective in which food demand in cities will continue to increase, it has become essential to plan the environmental development of urban food systems.
This need is based on the data published in 2019 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), according to which the global food system contributes up to 37% of man-made climate-changing gas emissions. The calculation includes the preliminary activities for cultivation (deforestation and change of use of the soil), the more typically agricultural activities, and the food production processes downstream of company activities, from transformation to distribution, to consumption and disposal. Rethinking agriculture and the entire structure of food supply chains is therefore one of the most ambitious challenges to meet a plethora of objectives, from the Sustainable Development Goals to the climate goals contained in the Paris Agreement.
What is the starting condition? According to the latest available data, at the global level 35% of food production is guaranteed by companies with less than two hectares of land, that represent 84% of the 608 million companies registered, and operate on just 12% of the agricultural surface area. These numbers tell us that small farms, that are more biodiverse and sustainable – because they diversify production, use few synthetic inputs and mechanization and are oriented to the local market – are still very significant. However, this model suffers from the pressure of growing agro-industry, that operates on the international market. The ability to achieve economies of scale, favored by the green revolution, has in fact led to increasing the yield and standardization of the products, so as to more efficiently serve the transformation industry and a sales and distribution system governed by only a few large players. The growing size of businesses is a consequence of this trend, and is positively correlated with the growth of economies. Just 1% of global farms, those that exceed 50 hectares of surface area, currently manage more than 70% of arable land.
The same trend is occurring at the European level. In the old continent, between 2005 and 2016, four million farms have closed (we have gone from 14.5 to approximately 10 million); in essence, about one thousand farmers have exited the market every day. However, the agricultural surface area cultivated has remained unchanged, which indicates the expansion of medium-large companies onto the lands of those who have been crushed by competition. The decline also involves the primary sector in Italy: in the period covered by the investigation, our country lost 320,000 farming businesses, while the overall number – awaiting the next ISTAT census – is just over one million.
Today we are at a turning point, that sees small, biodiverse and ecological agriculture losing ground with regard to the advance of agro-industry, which brings a greater capacity to serve changing consumption habits, but at the same time generates significant climate-environmental impacts, reduces the number of employed, and contributes to the depopulation of rural areas.
Symmetrically, we note that downstream of the supply chain there is a growing concentration of population in large urban centers, and as a consequence the number of people linked to less sustainable supply chains is increasing, with clear repercussions on the right to food access and on food poverty.
In this picture, the institutions are called on to develop integrated food policies, able to guarantee equitable access to healthy and sustainable food, to support rural development and local supply chains, and to incentivize agro-ecology and quality agricultural work. Intervening on urban food systems allows for promoting food safety, enhancing local agricultural activities and the relations between cities and the countryside, and combatting the phenomenon of soil consumption and the depopulation of rural areas.
What are food policies and why are they important?
Food policies come into play to deal with these multiple intertwined problems, and to generate a response starting from the local level. Naturally, this is a part of the solution, that is situated within an emerging, more general narrative – accelerated by the pandemic – that promotes the need to diversify production (not only in agriculture) and to strengthen the common market.
The expression "food policies" indicates the sum of strategies and instruments that institutions can adopt to intervene on local food systems from production processes to transformation, distribution, consumption, and disposal of food, with the intention of guaranteeing the health of people and the environment, favoring employment and promoting innovation.
All of the definitions of food policies used at the international level refer to the common goal of defining the fields of action, the goals, and the procedures necessary for planning with general and public effects, putting different stakeholders into contact with each other on questions relating to food.
In recent years, throughout the world local institutions have gradually come to understand the key challenges relating to food systems and have increased their commitment to planning in this area. The nature of these challenges changes, and depending on the context of reference and the choice of the priorities and food policy objectives, is it all political. These processes, although characterized by differences and specific characteristics for each territory, have common themes.
For example, dozens of cities in the world have set the goal of reducing waste and exploiting organic waste among the goals of their food policies. This has taken place principally in more developed countries, where food waste is prevalent in the final phases of the chain.
In North American cities, on the other hand, there are often interventions on the issue of public health, with the fight against obesity and the pathologies linked to food habits, and also on the questions of justice and access to food. Toronto, for example, in order to combat the growth of "food deserts," has favored the development of commercial businesses that sell healthy and high-quality food at accessible prices. To that end, the city conducted a survey of the commercial spaces that were little used, modifying the city regulations to allow for the exploitation of the underused areas.
When we change continents, the types of interventions foreseen by these public policies also change. In the cities of Latin America, food policies are more explicitly declined in terms of food security and the promotion of local economic development, especially through initiatives supporting urban and family agriculture. An example comes from Rio de Janeiro, where since 2012, there has been a law guaranteeing that every market of producers in the state must include at least a minimum of 10% of farmers from the city of Rio. By mainly selling fresh products, the circuit strengthens and favors sustainable agriculture on a small scale with low environmental impact in the entire state of Rio, bringing healthy, local food to the urban area, directly from the farm to the table, at fair prices and with continuity.
The choice of the priorities for intervention can be dictated by intrinsic factors of the local food systems, or by external events or factors. For example, a 2010 study demonstrated that, thanks to the public debate that in 2008-2010 regarded the overall increase of food prices, in the United Kingdom a national food strategy ended up being adopted. This policy was oriented principally towards strengthening self-sufficiency and national production capacity (central questions in this period, that are felt strongly by the population) and totally ignored other systematic problems such as child obesity and food insecurity in cities.
Understanding the complexity of the challenges that regard food systems and the impact of climate change on supply chains is the first step to activate public responses. Food policies respond precisely to this need: they represent an overall strategy that the institutions can pursue to improve connections between cities and the countryside, address inequality, and support virtuous agricultural production.
A food policy for Rome, the largest agricultural municipality in Italy
In Italy, local food policies can play a role in economic planning, becoming part of the process of relocation of production systems and consumption that has been invoked by many in response to the repeated shocks on international markets. So these are key policies for the ecological transition of the food system, to be connected to the more general strategies such as the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork strategy.
Although the debate on food policies has been underway for some time, and in our country has seen the birth of the experience of the city of Milan – six years ago now – the theme has remained under the surface of the public and political debate around the issues of food and agriculture. In Rome, for example, in just the past two years institutional awareness has risen around food policies, thanks to a shared process created on the initiative of civil society, that in April 2021 resulted in the approval of a resolution by the City Council that creates the preconditions for a food policy in the capital.
The experience of Rome, despite being well behind that of Milan, that today has an international profile, could in turn have an important echo. There are various reasons for this: the first, as noted, is that bottom-up nature of the process that led to the resolution instituting the food policy, that makes it unique at the national level. Another reason, more simply, derives from the social, environmental, and economic context that characterizes the capital. Rome is in fact the largest agricultural municipality in Italy, and among the largest in Europe, populated by over 2,000 farms, and part of a province that has over 20,000. These are mostly small-scale operations, run directly by the farmers, that can still be considered part of a family farming system that remains prevalent in our country. Many sell directly on location, while only a few market directly in the territory of Rome, despite the availability of an extraordinary network of 144 neighborhood markets. In these markets, out of approximately 5,000 positions, over half are occupied by food and agricultural operators, mainly merchants. Only about 100 farmers come into Roman neighborhood markets, according the calculations carried out by Terra!, but the number could be much higher. In fact, 20% of the stands are empty, with expired licenses that need to be reassigned. The decline of the markets can thus be stopped thanks to the activity of the City and its municipal districts, that have a key role in repopulating these spaces – that represent an alternative to large-scale distribution – through specific tenders.
Other drivers of connections between local farmers and consumers in Italy's capital are the facilities for collective meals. Among these, it is important to mention school cafeterias: every day, Rome offers school food services to approximately 144,000 children in kindergarten, elementary school, and middle school. This data tells us that by shaping the tender specifications so as to follow criteria of short supply chains, sustainability, and seasonality, important repercussions can be obtained on the urban, periurban, and rural economic fabric. Intervening in this sector with the lever of public procurement could have cascading effects also on other forms of public food services, such as procurement for hospitals or universities, penitentiaries or care homes.
Rome is also a very lively city from the standpoint of alternative food networks: farmer's markets, buying groups ("GAS"), and community-supported agriculture. For example, the latest estimates list 55 buying groups in the city territory, a useful alternative channel for small local farmers.
Lastly, the ample surface area of public lands present in the city and region represents an extraordinary opportunity to activate policies for generational change in the production sector, inverting a trend towards aging in agriculture that is affecting all of Europe. Young people are discouraged from accessing land due to the lack of capital, as well as the difficulty of finding training courses that guarantee actual entry into the world of work. Most people under 40 who enter the primary sector consist of people with medium to high academic qualifications and a well-developed environmental conscience, demonstrated by the fact that – to use the Italian example – they manage 38% percent of the surfaces destined to organic production. Yet Italy suffers more than others from the generational shift: despite being third in the number of farming businesses in the EU, for each farmer under 35 there are ten over 65. Considering that the Latium Region has 11% of the public lands in Italy, most of which are found in the metropolitan city of Rome (26,098 hectares) and in the province of Rieti (25,632 hectares), the possibility to assign plots of land to aspiring young farmers is abundant.
The importance of a democratic process underlying food policies
The processes with which food policies are defined and implemented can be very different depending on the relevant context. As we have seen, they can vary based on the priorities to follow or the breadth of the territory involved. The strategic approach is also a factor of differentiation: depending on whether it comes from the institutions (top-down) or from civil society (bottom-up), urban food policies can lead to very different results. In the first case, one of the examples studied the most at the international level is that of the food policy of Milan, born in 2015 in a clearly specific context – that of EXPO, the World's Fair – that led then-mayor Giuliano Pisapia to establish a food policy for the city. This activity by the city government, though, was not accompanied by the involvement of civil society.
In Rome, the path was different. In 2019, a large group of associations, farmers, researchers, and citizens drove forward an incessant activity of political pressure that on April 27, 2021, led to the approval of the resolution that required the city to adopt a food policy. What advantages or disadvantages can derive from the two approaches? On the one hand, a top-down institutional initiative can at times accelerate decision-making and implement concrete projects in a relatively limited time. On the other, the presence of civil society or organized citizens in decision-making processes (an aspect encouraged also by Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: "Peace, justice and strong institutions") can increase the sense of belonging and the efficacy of the strategy and contribute to settling the potential conflicts that not infrequently arise downstream of top-down choices.
However, participation can also take different forms: it can be left to the good will of civil society, or foreseen by laws. In the capital, the push from the bottom that characterized the whole process led to the insertion in the city resolution of an article that will ensure the birth of a Food Council. This body – that is not present in Milan, for example – will have the form of a citizens council and will be assigned to develop a food plan that gives concrete form to the food policy in dialogue with the city government.
All of this was possible thanks to the spontaneous activation of a vast number of groups which Terra! helped organize. In 2019, after having worked together with a group of university researchers on a new report that developed a picture of all of the aspects of the city food system, the association contributed to creating a network of dozens of actors from the social, academic, and productive worlds, establishing an organizing committee for Rome's food policy. It was this broad collective that launched a dialogue with the city institutions, leading to the drafting and unanimous approval in the City Council of the resolution. The text approved last April sets clear deadlines for the creation of a citizens council (the Food Council that should come into being in three months) and the drafting of the strategy (the Food Plan that will come to light in the next six months), two instruments that will strengthen the food system in Rome and guarantee public participation on the themes of nutrition and food.
In parallel with the participatory process that emerged from the ferment of citizens' organizations, the City of Rome has launched other food planning projects. Examples are the Agrifood plan, created within the Commerce and Urban Planning Departments, and the European FUSILLI project. La Metropolitan City reached an agreement with the University Consortium for Socioeconomic Research and the Environment (CURSA) to construct a food plan. The challenge will now be to understand the possible interconnections between the different processes, from the standpoint of making urban food planning coherent and guaranteeing that civil society can play the role of co-protagonist as assigned to it by the resolution.
The true challenge – as already stated – is to concretely define, and then implement, the policies for Rome in terms of agriculture and food. In this article we have listed both critical aspects and the potential of the sector. The hope now is that the theme of food and agriculture can finally become the subject of planning in the largest agricultural municipality in Italy, and that its institutions will dedicate the same level of attention to it that until now has been to other areas of civic life. The impact of the pandemic may have contributed to focusing a spotlight on the importance of urban planning, with inequality becoming more central in the public debate, especially as regards food poverty. The fact that the right to food is seriously violated, could be a factor that provides the justification and generates the strength to translate into reality the positive proposals made by civil society.
 S.K. Lowder, M.V.Sánchez, R. Bertini, "Which Farms Feed the World and Has Farmland Become More Concentrated?" World Development, 142, 2021.
 "L’agricoltura italiana conta 2019", CREA - Centro di ricerca Politiche e Bioeconomia, 2020.