Feeding Leeds: A fair and self-sustaining food system for the city


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