The Risk of “Foodwashing” in Calls for Innovative Urban Projects

Paula Macé Le Ficher analyzes the ways in which farming and food issues have been integrated into calls for innovative projects organized in Greater Paris, and highlights the potential these programs have for fostering new developments in the field of urban agriculture—while remaining realistic about extent to which they might transform the urban food system in the Paris region.

Since the start of the 2010s, food has emerged as an essential theme for urban projects. This rising prominence reflects the growing importance our society attaches to agricultural and food-related issues. According to some researchers, this trend is the result of a “new food equation” that is the result of a complex combination of factors: the financial crises of 2007–2008 and 2011, which brought to light the risks facing food security, particularly at the national level; increasing challenges to the globalized agri-food system, both through health scandals and through new nutritional problems (obesity, malnutrition); the growing effects of climate change on local ecosystems; and the rise in conflicts related to access to land (Morgan and Sonnino 2010).

Calls for innovative projects (CIPs) are no exception to this rule, as they increasingly concern agricultural and food issues, among other subjects. In the Paris region, in France, this is reflected in the objectives set out in a number of recent consultation exercises: Parisculteurs (a portmanteau of Paris and agriculteurs, or farmers), which seeks to “reinvent our relationship with the city, the countryside, nature and food”; Réinventer Paris (“Reinvent Paris”), which considers agriculture as one of the new services that the city must provide to its inhabitants; and Inventons la Métropole du Grand Paris (“Let’s Invent the Greater Paris Metropolis”; hereafter IMGP), which aims to promote the value of “local production and consumption.”

In this context, it is legitimate to raise questions about the effects of these approaches on the dynamics of transformation of the urban food system [1] in the Paris region. How do the projects selected within the framework of CIPs address agricultural and food issues? What are the differences—contradictions, even—between projects that incorporate these themes? Lastly, if we look beyond the narrative of “reinvention,” to what extent are these projects capable of changing the food system as a whole?

CIPs: fertile ground for experimentation and structuring an urban farming sector

In CIPs in the Paris region, the response to food-related issues lies primarily in the development of urban agriculture: it is the core objective of Parisculteurs, and is also present in five sites selected following the first edition of Réinventer Paris, launched in 2016; two years later, urban farming featured in 60% of the winning projects resulting from the IMGP program. In this way, CIPs are proving to be a framework for experimentation that is capable of producing both new knowledge and new skills regarding agriculture in dense urban environments (Scheromm, Perrin and Soulard 2014, p. 50).

On the one hand, in terms of agronomy, the proposed projects run the gamut of innovative farming practices, from aquaponics and aeroponics to Hügelkultur (cultivation in mounds of compostable biomass), container growing, agroforestry, and more besides. The experimental dimension of projects is sometimes highlighted, as in the case of the project titled “L’agriculture urbaine dans tous ses états” (“Urban agriculture in all its forms,” located in the eastern 20th arrondissement of Paris, selected as part of the Parisculteurs CIP), which is presented as a “demonstrator of urban farming techniques.” Some sites are even the subject of research partnerships with higher-education institutions such as AgroParisTech and INRA. [2] On the other hand, in terms of its urban dimension, CIPs contribute to the constitution and consolidation of a normative and operational framework for urban farming, in particular through the production of new standards: for example, the “Parisculteurs toolbox” develops not only economic and legal recommendations for project stakeholders (concerning the status and business plan of new farms) but also urban and architectural guidelines (on the adaptation and application of local planning rules, constraints relating to the structure of buildings, regulations on public safety).

Moreover, by emphasizing different end uses and the importance of managers, CIPs encourage the emergence of actors specialized in the design, implementation and operation of urban farming projects. In all, there are nearly 30 resulting from the three CIPs studied here, including a large number of associations or start-ups created in the last five years, such as Aeromat, Agripolis, Cultivate, Cycloponics, Le Paysan Urbain, La Sauge, Topager, and Toit Tout Vert. These structures are often members of AFAUP (the French Association for Professional Urban Agriculture), founded in 2016 at the instigation of AgroParisTech. In this way, CIPs are indirectly helping to structure a new professional sector that combines agricultural and urban know-how, and to open up a developing market.

Broadening the political debate to embrace heterogeneous approaches

However, these CIPs should be differentiated according to the importance and status they attach to urban agriculture in the selection of projects. The few initiatives that put urban farming at the very heart of their program—such as “Ressources Toits” (“Roof Resources”) in the southern suburb of Morangis (IMGP), whose site is organized around an agricultural holding of nearly 8,000 m² (86,000 sq. ft)—cannot be equated with those in which it occupies a secondary, even cosmetic, role (for example, in the form of vegetable gardens, apiaries or henhouses).

Moreover, while the diversity of services that farming provides to the city is irrefutable (Donadieu 1998), these services vary greatly from one project to another: while most put forward an educational and social dimension—for example, “La Récréation des Confitures” (“Jelly Recess”; Parisculteurs) welcomes schoolchildren; “La Ferme du Rail” (“Railroad Farm”; Réinventer Paris) focuses on employability—some are built on a more traditional farming model (one or more farmers cultivating parcels of land and marketing produce) and are not intended to be opened up to their surrounding environment.

Finally, major debates on the future of the region’s agricultural and food system seem relatively absent, at least at this stage of the CIPs; however, each project has a particular vision of urban farming, which is not without consequences in terms of the kind of ecological transition that cities and food production are likely to face in the future. High-tech agriculture (using containers, automation and LED technology) such as that proposed by the “Triango” project (in the northern suburb of Gonesse; IMGP) is helping to promote an ultra-connected “Farming 4.0,” while other projects, such as “La Campagne” (Parisculteurs), seem more in line with trends advocating alternative agro‑ecological practices. In short, there is not one but rather several forms of urban farming within these CIPs, whose implications in urban, environmental, and social terms have not yet been studied in depth.

Beyond showcasing, how do CIPs help to transformat the urban food system?

There are several reasons to consider CIP’s ambitions to transform the urban food system with caution. First, despite a desire to “do better and faster”, [3] most of the projects selected in the various consultations will not see the light of day for several years. However, the economic model of operators specializing in urban agriculture has not stabilised: initial investments are heavy, particularly for projects with a high technological dimension, while the profitability of operations is not guaranteed. A recent article in Le Monde reports that 80% of companies emerging in this field do not survive beyond the first year. Under these conditions, it is possible to question not only the operationality of projects resulting from CIPs, but also their sustainability. The question arises all the more since urban agriculture is sometimes reduced to a simple selling point to carry out a consultation: according to the participants in the IMGP’s [4] call for projects, programmatic choices were mainly based on a "differentiating strategy" (in 44% of cases). But only 30% of the so-called innovative proposals are certainly financed, while 58% of them depend on an additional investment effort by the group. This financing is all the more difficult to guarantee since projects, whose financial balance sheet has been drawn up within a very short period of time and without always being based on in-depth diagnoses, could face many additional costs during the study phases.

Secondly, urban agriculture alone cannot meet the challenges of the ecological transition of the urban food system: among the CIP winners, only a small minority address the processing (microbreweries), distribution (supermarkets dedicated to direct sales) and catering (locavores or food-trucks) aspects. However, one project is distinguished by its ambition to integrate all aspects of food in a transversal way: "Réalimenter Masséna" (Reinventing Paris) is intended to be both a place where the district can be animated, a space for prospective research intended for the various actors in the food sector (AgroParisTech, Sous les fraises, La Ruche qui dit oui) and a place for debate (which will be hosted by the General Food media).

Thirdly and finally, if the agricultural and food projects developed within the framework of the CIPs can contribute to a dynamic of food re-territorialisation (for example, by simply allowing inhabitants to consume fruit and vegetables produced in their neighbourhood), their impact on the food supply of the Parisian metropolis should not be overestimated. This remains largely globalized, seasonally adjusted and almost monopolized by private actors in the mass retail sector (Bognon 2014). However, the latter are almost absent from all three consultations - with the notable exception of the Casino supermarket group. Moreover, the number and size of urban agricultural plots (between 40 m² (430 sq. ft) and 10,000 m² (108,000 sq. ft or 2.5 acres), compared to the average 56 hectares (138 acres) of French farms) remain modest, even anecdotal, to provide an alternative to the existing supply dynamics of the capital region. In fact, the evolution of the food system involves much broader challenges and requires new forms of articulation between the local and the global (Bricas 2017).

Ultimately, while too many questions remain open to condemn CIPs by the yardstick of foodwashing, [5] their media visibility and symbolic weight must not overshadow the structural challenges facing the food system or dilute its highly political dimension.

Bibliography

  • Bognon, S. 2014. Les Transformations de l’approvisionnement alimentaire dans la métropole parisienne. Trajectoire socio-écologique et construction de proximités, PhD thesis in geography, Université Paris‑1 Panthéon–Sorbonne.
  • Bricas, N. 2017. “Les enjeux de l’alimentation des villes”, Les Cahiers de l’IAU, no. 173, pp. 6–9.
  • Donadieu, P. 1998. Campagnes urbaines, Arles/Versailles: Actes Sud.
  • Morgan, K. and Sonnino, R. 2010, “The Urban Foodscape: World Cities and the New Food Equation”, Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 209–224.
  • Rastoin, J.-L. and Ghersi, G. 2010. Le Système alimentaire mondial. Concepts et méthodes, analyses et dynamiques, Versailles: Quæ.
  • Scheromm, P., Perrin, C. and Soulard, C. 2014. “Cultiver en ville… Cultiver la ville ? L’agriculture urbaine à Montpellier”, Espaces et Sociétés, no. 158, pp. 49–66.

Footnotes

[1This includes all flows and stakeholders involved in food production, food supply, catering, and the management of food waste, as well as the regulation of these various functions (Rastoin and Ghersi 2010).

[2INRA: Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique – French National Institute for Agricultural Research

[3This is one of the “innovation challenges” identified by the rules of the Réinventer Paris program.

[4In total, 155 candidates responded to a survey conducted by the agencies Le Sens de la Ville and Partie Prenante. See (in French): http://partieprenante.com/pour-un-retour-experience-sur-imgp.

[5Like greenwashing, “foodwashing” uses food as a marketing strategy to promote an image of eco‑responsibility.

To quote this article :

Paula Macé Le Ficher & translated by Oliver Waine, « The Risk of “Foodwashing” in Calls for Innovative Urban Projects », Metropolitics, 22 February 2019. URL : https://www.metropolitiques.eu/The-Risk-of-Foodwashing-in-Calls-for-Innovative-Urban-Projects.html
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