Skip to content.
Biogas energy generation from the waste at the Agrocaribe palm oil plantation
Food Supply Chains

Interventions to reduce food loss and waste and to decarbonize supply chain activities in transport, processing and distribution.

Building circular food systems in cities


Urban areas are central to food consumption, with 79% of all food production directed toward consumers residing in cities. Local governments can play a pivotal role in building circular food systems in cities, as they are intricately connected to every stage of the food value chain, from public procurement to waste management. Circular food systems seek to address pressing environmental impacts across the food value chain, including natural resource degradation, high carbon intensity of food systems, or food waste to landfill (methane generation). Cities, through their local governments, serve as incubators for innovative policies and public services, which can later be adopted nationally. This approach can foster collaboration among key food system actors, paving the way for innovative solutions and business models to flourish at the local level.

Concrete measures to implement

ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability (a global network working with more than 2,500 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development) has developed a practical handbook for designing circular food systems. Below is a summary of key steps and measures based on this approach:

  • Understand the context and engage with stakeholders:
    • Analyse the city’s food system using an adequate assessment method that matches available resources and objectives.
    • Compile results of the food systems assessment.
    • Conduct stakeholder mapping:
      • Use an adequate stakeholder mapping methodology to identify and map out informal and formal actors.
      • Successful stakeholder mapping can be achieved by demonstrating commitment to the process; investing in careful planning before engaging stakeholders; knowing the stakeholder landscape; making it worth their while; starting with an open mind; convening on neutral ground; collectively defining what success looks like; and ensuring continuity of engagement.
  • Design a circular food system with a collective vision and prioritising sub-strategies for food consumption and production and waste prevention and management, using the following framework:
    • Circular City Actions Framework
      • Rethink: redesign the system by rethinking how value chains are organized. 
      • Regenerate – harmonize with nature: Ensure all infrastructures and production-consumption systems positively contribute to local resource and nutrient cycles and respect the ecosystem’s regeneration rates.
      • Reuse – use longer: Extend the use of existing resources, products, and infrastructure.
      • Reduce – do better with less: design infrastructures, processes, and products to reduce material & energy consumption and waste generation during production, use and end-of-life.
      • Recover – close the loop: Enable the recovery of materials at their end of life and facilitate their reintroduction in production processes.
  • Apply Policy Tools to jumpstart implementation to reach the vision and strategy:
    • Examples of policy instruments at global level:
    • Examples of policy instruments at the local government level:
      • Regulating and planning: For example, dedicating city-owned arable land to regenerative agriculture, improved food recovery and food banking policy, and organic landfill bans. 
      • Economic: For example, including regenerative farming and compost purchasing in public procurement programs with a focus on soil health, water management, fertilizer use.
      • Cooperation: For example, facilitating access to land and space for food businesses supporting regenerative farming.
      • Education and knowledge: For example, facilitating access to trainings on small-scale regenerative agriculture for community groups, and providing training for the private sector to increase edible food recovery and food waste diversion from landfill.
  • Monitor progress:
    • Set specific goals for the selected strategies and set up monitoring systems.
    • Draft policy instruments and conduct a cost-benefit analysis and feasibility analysis where required. 
    • Develop an implementation plan. 
    • Set up a monitoring and evaluation system to follow up on the implementation.
    • Link monitoring programs to global targets.

Enabling governance measures 

  • Improvements to general urban infrastructure (e.g. roads or storage facilities, composting, food waste management, edible food recovery, food banking, etc).
  • Coordination with governments and other public institutions at the regional, national and international level to align and complement corresponding food systems policies. 
  • Integration of circular food system strategy/measures into climate and land-use policies. 
  • Increased capacity of municipal government staff to understand and implement circular food system policies. 
  • Increased research on the benefits of circular food systems in cities and best practices for implementing them.
  • Reform agricultural subsidies and tax policies to incentivize production of locally grown sustainable foods.
  • Seek investments from private and multilateral donors to support transition to circular food systems.

Tools and MRV systems to monitor progress

Guides and handbooks

Stakeholder mapping tools:

Climate change mitigation benefits

Implementing circular economy for food systems in cities has the potential to reduce 4.3 Billion tons of CO2 equivalent by 2050 by sourcing food grown regeneratively, and locally where appropriate; ensuring inevitable by-products are used at their highest value, transforming them into new products ranging from organic fertilisers, animal feed products, and biomaterials to medicine and bioenergy; and by redesigning and marketing healthy food products.

Other climate benefits: 

  • Sustainable agriculture practices: Adoption of sustainable farming methods like organic farming and regenerative agriculture contributes to carbon sequestration and soil health improvement.
  • Land conservation: Prevention of land conversion from natural ecosystems to agricultural land, reducing habitat destruction and associated carbon emissions.
  • Water conservation: Efficient water management practices, including rainwater harvesting and sustainable irrigation, leading to reduced water consumption in food production.
  • Promotion of plant-based diets: Encouragement of plant-based diets, which typically have a lower carbon footprint compared to diets rich in animal products.

Other climate benefits

  • Improved air quality

Adaptation co-benefits

  • Resilient Urban Infrastructure: Circular food systems often incorporate resilient infrastructure, such as green infrastructure for water and waste management, which can enhance a city’s overall resilience to climate impacts and reduce costly inputs.
  • Climate Resilience: Increased resilience to climate-related challenges such as extreme weather events and water scarcity due to diversified and local food production.
  • Adaptive Governance: Adaptive governance structures facilitating real-time adjustments in food systems to address emerging climate risks.
  • Community Engagement: Engaging communities in circular food initiatives fosters social cohesion and can lead to the development of community-led climate adaptation strategies, food recovery, and food banking efforts.
  • Ecosystem Restoration: Circular systems may involve restoring urban green spaces and urban agriculture, which can provide habitat for wildlife and support ecosystem services that enhance urban resilience to climate change.
  • Local Climate Resilience: Diversified and localised food production can reduce the vulnerability of urban areas to climate-related risks, including supply chain disruptions and food shortages.
  • Enhanced Food Security: Circular food systems are often more resilient to climate-related disruptions, ensuring a consistent food supply during extreme weather events or other challenges, thus supporting food security.

Other sustainable development co-benefits 

  • SDG 1 (No Poverty): by creating local employment opportunities.
  • SDG 2 (Zero Hunger): by ensuring consistent access to nutritious food.
  • SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being): by encouraging better dietary choices.
  • SDG 4 (Quality Education): by providing opportunities for sustainable food education. hence fostering environmental education.
  • SDG 10 (Reducing Inequalities): by ensuring equitable access to food and participation opportunities.
  • SDG 12 (Sustainable Production and Consumption): by ensuring effective waste management and climate smart production of food.
  • SDG 15 (Life on Land): by supporting sustainable agriculture and habitat protection.

Implementation challenges and potential externalities and trade-offs

  • Higher Initial Costs: Implementing circular food systems can involve higher upfront costs for infrastructure, technology and education, which may pose financial challenges especially for low income countries and communities who often struggle to finance even basic waste management practices.
  • Unequal Access: Circular food systems may inadvertently exacerbate inequalities if access to resources, such as land or education, is unevenly distributed among communities.
  • Competition for Resources: Circular systems could compete with other essential urban services, such as housing or transportation, for resources like space and funding.

Measures to address challenges and potential externalities and trade-offs

  • Adequate public and private funding through public-private partnerships with retailers and consumer goods companies to propel innovation, research and learning. 
  • Inclusive policy planning and implementation processes by active participation of marginalized voices to ensure a just transition to circular food systems.
  • Platforms and governance structures to accelerate cooperation among all stakeholders.
  • Strengthened local food production through practices tailored to local contexts such as using diverse crop varieties and cover crops, rotational grazing and agroforestry. 

Implementation costs

Costs vary across countries and contexts.

Intervention in practice

  • The Municipality of Milan launched the Local Food Waste Hub initiative as part of its comprehensive Food Policy, which aimed to enhance the city’s food system sustainability and reduce food waste by 50% by 2030. Collaborating with Assolombarda and the Polytechnic University of Milan, the project established the first Local Food Waste Hub which collects surplus food from local supermarkets and canteens and redistributes it to those in need through local neighbourhood networks. Additionally, the Municipality incentivized businesses to participate by offering a 20% reduction on waste tax based on the quantity of food donated, synergizing with the Food Waste Hub’s efforts. As a complementary measure, Assolombarda introduced a label to recognize businesses engaged in food donations, fostering virtuous practices in the community. Currently, two active hubs serve different city districts, with more in development, promoting sustainability and food waste reduction within Milan’s urban landscape.
  • The Korean government has prioritized reducing food waste by creating the infrastructure needed to manage it, taking time to study barriers to implementation, liaising with restaurant owners, educating the public before the rollout, and eventually enforcing noncompliance. The carefully planned stages of implementation helped get the public on board with the scheme, which in turn increased public trust because residents experienced how efficiently the food waste management system functioned. Since the mid-1980s, the Korean government has been pursuing waste management strategies aimed at putting the onus on producers to reduce waste at the source. The Wastes Control Act, enacted in 1986 and amended in 2007, stipulates the role and responsibilities of consumers and producers in waste management, and calls for the environment minister to devise a plan for waste management around the country every 10 years. The volume-based waste fee system, introduced in 1995, made producers responsible for the waste they generated by mandating that they pay the cost of disposal, which led to a 23% reduction in domestic waste.


  1. FAO. (2019). FAO framework for the Urban Food Agenda. Retrieved from
  2. Hamam, M., Chinnici, G., Di Vita, G., Pappalardo, G., Pecorino, B., Maesano, G., et al. (2021). Circular Economy Models in Agro-Food Systems: A Review. Sustainability, 13(6), 3453
  3. ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. (2021a). City Practitioners Handbook: Circular Food Systems. Retrieved from
  4. ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. (2021b). City Practitioners Handbook: Circular Food Systems – Circular Food Systems Action Card Template. Retrieved February 8, 2024, from
  5. ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. (2021c). City Practitioners Handbook: Circular Food Systems – Overview of city-level food system assessment methods. Retrieved February 8, 2024, from
  6. Milan Urban Food Policy Pact. (2020). Food Waste Milan 2019. Retrieved from