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Placing food on the global agenda

Professor Roberta Sonnino’s pioneering research helped shape the first global policy framework promoting more inclusive and sustainable urban food systems.

A challenging context

  • it’s predicted that 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050
  • urban inhabitants consume up to 70% of available food supply, even in countries with large rural populations
  • increased and rapid urbanisation threatens the sustainability of supply chains and access to adequate food

Professor Sonnino’s interdisciplinary approach, combining research on short supply chains, public procurement, food security and food governance, is designed to tackle, and help solve, this global issue.

Setting the agenda

In 2016, Professor Sonnino was an expert advisor on the EU-funded project Innovation for a Sustainable and Healthy Production, Delivery and Consumption of Food in Cities. Coordinated by EUROCITIES (a network of government representatives from more than 130 of Europe's largest cities), the project collected and analysed data from cities around the world who sought to reform their food systems.

The team quickly identified the importance and potential impact of research and innovation funding in developing new systems, recommending better ways of coordinating different resources and championing four areas of innovation:

  • systems thinking: city governments’ capacity to understand (and engage with) food as a complex system
  • enhanced civil society participation: focused efforts by city governments to create more inclusive and democratic food governance arenas
  • food policy integration: inclusion of food within other policy sectors and priorities such as housing, transport, welfare, and environment
  • progressive trans-local alliances: global networks of cities to enable knowledge-exchange and the sharing of best practice

Building consensus and enabling action

At the most senior level of European and international governance, Professor Sonnino has highlighted the urgency of urban food systems transformation. Through research, representation and expert testimony, she has raised awareness and facilitated significant investment for a new era of global intervention, creating lasting change for communities across countries and continents.

Innovative approaches to achieving inclusive and sustainable food systems have emerged from Professor Sonnino’s work, with her influence evident in the new strategic focus (to reform policy and practice and invest in research and innovation) across European and International organisations.

New UN strategy and funding

Professor Sonnino - as the only external expert – led an 18-month UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) project, which resulted in the Framework for the Urban Food Agenda.

The Framework articulated seven Comprehensive Areas of Support (CAS) for targeted UN intervention, including funding for local governments to address urban food security and create sustainable food systems.

It also identified the need to support food system actors who were not previously beneficiaries of UN policy interventions, such as traders, wholesalers, processors and street vendors.

The seven CAS attracted $20M in funding from donor countries and these funds are, to date, enabling change in Tunisia, Bangladesh, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ukraine and Tanzania.

A new urban food agenda for the European Commission

As Vice-Chair of the European Commission’s FOOD 2030 Expert Group, Professor Sonnino led on the writing of a report that identified urban food systems as a priority funding area for the next round of European research. As a direct result, the European Commission released two new funding calls, allocating:

  • €15M to two projects running across 13 countries (Italy, Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Slovenia, Netherlands, UK, Poland, Sweden, Romania, and Greece)
  • €34M to support the development of urban food policies across all EU member states

The latest call resulted in three projects receiving funding, including a €12M ‘Building Pathways Toward FOOD 2030-led Urban Food Policies’ (FOODTRAILS) project. Led by the City of Milan, Professor Sonnino will act as overall scientific coordinator for the project, which includes 11 partner cities across nine European cities as well as 21 cities in 13 countries beyond Europe.