The Subtle Equation of Sustainable Urban Food Logistics

Sourced from Urban Food Futures

Why is it so difficult for farmers operating just outside the city of Chicago to sell to people living there? This was the question that led a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison (United States) to explore urban food logistics.

Their work, published in a report entitled Regional Food Freight: Lessons from the Chicago Region, unveils the historical trends that led to the consolidation of long distance supply chains at the expense of shorter ones, and the limits of the current food freight system. It calls for a more careful integration of food diversity into urban logistics.

How did we get there?
Today’s food freight system is very efficient in moving large volumes of food from specialised agricultural regions to urban consumers. However, it also has social, economic and ecological limits. Among those, the fact that farmers producing on a small scale just outside of cities find it difficult to sell to urban dwellers. Indeed, private transport companies want to keep their trucks full and on the road, and farmers who produce small quantities cannot fill these trucks… Many crops once grown regionally and integrated in regional wholesale markets have fallen below the critical production threshold under which transportation is too expensive, and were dropped as a consequence.

How did we get there? The report looks back at the last 70 years. What it depicts applies to the United States, but also to many developed, and even developing countries. It shows the specific interplay of factors – many of them triggered by public investment or policies – that made it possible to move from predominantly regional food chains to mainly national and global ones. These are:

  • The specialisation of production, i.e. the fact that some regions specialise in the production of a very small number of products in large quantities.
  • The improvements in transportation infrastructure and technologies, such as highways or refrigerated trucks. This made it possible to transport large quantities of food from specialised regions to consumers all over the world.
  • The privatisation of food terminals, making it more difficult for small-scale businesses to access such platforms.

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