Quantifying the foodshed: a systematic review of urban food flow and local food self-sufficiency research


Cities are net consumers of food from local and global hinterlands. Urban foodshed analysis is a quantitative approach for examining links between urban consumers and rural agricultural production by mapping food flow networks or estimating the potential for local food self-sufficiency (LFS). However, at present, the lack of a coherent methodological framework and research agenda limits the potential to compare different cities and regions as well as to cumulate knowledge. We conduct a review of 42 peer-reviewed publications on foodsheds (identified from a subset of 829 publications) from 1979 to 2019 that quantify LFS, food supply, or food flows on the urban or regional scale. We define and characterize these studies into three main foodshed types: (1) agricultural capacity, which estimate LFS potential or local foodshed size required to meet food demands; (2) food flow, which trace food movements and embodied resources or emissions; and (3) hybrid, which combine both approaches and study dynamics between imports, exports, and LFS. LFS capacity studies are the most common type but the majority of cases we found in the literature were from cities or regions in the Global North with underrepresentation of rapidly urbanizing regions of the Global South. We use a synthetic framework with ten criteria to further classify foodshed studies, which illustrates the challenges ofquantitatively comparing results across studies with different methodologies. Core research priorities from our review include the need to explore the interplay between LFS capacity and interregional food trade (both imports and exports) for foodsheds. Hybrid methodologies are particularly relevant to examining such dependency relationships in food systems by incorporating food flows into LFS capacity assessment. Foodshed analysis can inform policy related to multiple components of sustainable food systems, including navigating the social and environmental benefits and tradeoffs of sourcing food locally, regionally, and globally.

Environmental Research Letters, 16(2), 023003
Brian E Robinson
Brian E Robinson
Associate Professor

My research interests include land systems, social-ecological policy, and statistics.