The World Sustainable Urban Food Centre of Valencia

by NYC Food Policy Editor

The World Sustainable Urban Food Centre of Valencia (CEMAS) is a joint initiative between the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the City Council of Valencia, Spain. Launched in 2019, CEMAS was created to support and advise cities around the world about how to strengthen their sustainable local food systems. When our Executive Director Annette Nielsen met with members of CEMAS earlier this year, the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center had the opportunity to learn more about their work.

FPC: How did this partnership between FAO and the Valencia City Council come about? How was it that Valencia was selected as the center for this important global leadership role?

CEMAS: In 2018, the then general director of FAO, Mr. Graziano da Silva, and his team recognized that the emergence of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provided a historic moment for the United Nations to link the great values, data, and strategies of FAO with cities around the world. The city of Valencia contacted FAO, and both parties realized that for centuries Valencia had been following practices that are respectful of the environment, protect small producers, promote biodiversity, and are the basis for the Mediterranean diet. 

Valencia was selected as the location for CEMAS as a happy consequence of its having been responsible for organizing the meeting of the cities that had signed on to the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact — a first-of-its-kind international protocol aimed at tackling food-related issues at the urban level in as many world cities as possible. CEMAS recognized the important role that cities and their respective mayors across the globe could play in creating a space to share big-picture objectives, challenges, and successes. To continue this important dialogue, and to work within a framework with a formal agreement, CEMAS was formalized in 2019 — the first time in FAO’s 75-year existence that it signed an agreement with a city. 

During the gathering of the 3rd Annual Milan Urban Food Policy Pact in 2017, Valencia was named the World Capital of Sustainable Food. How has food policy in Valencia changed since the city was declared a World Food Capital?

The honor of having been named the World Capital of Sustainable Food meant several things. On the one hand, it served as historical recognition for thousands of producer families and technicians, for the university, for all that diverse group of people who have been working for a long time to maintain a sustainable and coherent food system. On the other hand, it forced us to plan new strategies and new public policies. The issue of public procurement was strengthened so that schools could obtain fresh and local food; the municipal food council was created; we initiated policies and laws that increased the promotion of local production; school children learned more about the food system and their relationship with food, and new agreements with public and private universities generated the frequent publication of research and reports. Relations were strengthened not only with cities, but also with networks of cities that act as effective disseminating agents. Relations with other United Nations agencies were also strengthened: UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), WFP (United Nations World Food Programme), and, above all, a dynamic was created in which any area of knowledge related to these issues is welcome. And we discovered in this process that many more areas of knowledge are involved than one might initially think.

What is the organizational structure of CEMAS and how do you see this evolving?

CEMAS is a collaboration between the Valencia City Council and the FAO, but it includes participation from the provincial government and the regional government. The Mayor of Valencia is the president of CEMAS, the first vice-president is the person who holds the City office responsible for food and agriculture, and the second vice-president is the person who holds the City office responsible for education and development cooperation. The other members are City Council members from Valencia, as well as other political representatives from the provincial and regional governments and members of the opposing political party.

CEMAS is also setting up an advisory council. This will include members of the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, private foundations linked to philanthropy and food, and research institutes that we believe are relevant and whose opinion or guidance can be valuable.

CEMAS also has a team of executives and administrative professionals who are in charge of all communications, office management, and institutional relationships.

What are some of the most notable achievements from the past year?

In 2022, CEMAS hosted a series of five international meetings. On September 29th, World Food Waste Awareness Day, we held an international meeting with representatives from FAO, academia, universities, and public administrations on how to manage food waste. For World Food Day (October 16th), we held a meeting focused on the ethical issues related to food that brought in philosophers of the highest international prestige. For World Fishing Day (November 21), we held a very interesting meeting about both traditional and modern forms of fishing, especially family fishing. Toward the end of November, we also held an international meeting with the official college of pharmacists to talk about diet, obesity, and young people, adolescents and children. Finally, in December, a meeting on depopulation and food systems showed that in order to reverse depopulation it is necessary to rethink a food system that is sustainable and that links the urban and the rural.

What major initiatives are you working on right now?

So far this year we have already launched some very interesting initiatives. In March we held an international congress with the Water Tribunal of Valencia — an oral court for settling irrigation and water-use disputes in the Valencia area. The Water Tribunal was created hundreds (possibly even thousands) of years ago to protect small farmers and producers, and it manages all issues related to water in the region. The congress is proving to be an ideal window of opportunity and should be held every year. Fortunately we have the permanent support of the FAO Land and Water division to pursue this. We have also started to develop a digital platform where schools and their students can share their concerns and projects related to food. The platform aims to improve nutrition, reduce food waste, link food more to the season of the year in which we live, and orient food preferences toward local food. We are also currently implementing a program that analyzes and monitors consumption trends in local markets. 

There are still many initiatives to be implemented in 2023. We are going to hold meetings again this year that are similar to those held last fall on World Food Waste Awareness Day, World Food Day, and World Fishing Day. This year we are also going to hold a meeting with the directors of national parks in Spain to link the potential for establishing sustainable food systems in national park environments. We also have a conference planned with the College of Psychologists about eating disorders, especially in the younger population, because it is a much more serious problem than it seems and it is necessary to give it much more visibility. In addition, we plan to publish a report on the results obtained in the first phase of a project on food waste that we initiated last year at the Palacio de Congresos (the Conference Center of Valencia), and we will probably publish a book on the events we held in 2022. We are also developing agreements with public universities and probably with some private ones as well.

In addition, there are two projects for 2023 of which we are particularly fond. Schools to CEMAS is a program that introduces schoolchildren to the work of CEMAS so that they can learn about all of these issues. Another project relates to rural schools. We are hoping to promote collaborations between rural schools and members of rural communities, including farmers and cooks, across generations.

What methods are used to best share important food policy information with the public? How do you make this critical information relevant to different geographic areas?

Food policies are very important for the public to understand. To expand public knowledge and awareness of food policy issues, we regularly publish reports and books, as well as share information on social networks, through our newsletter and the internet. In addition, we take advantage of visits to FAOs, attendance at international congresses, or gathering with universities, research centers, or civil society organizations to distribute or share what we generate. These gatherings are especially significant because we always learn from the institutions and organizations with whom we partner.

Valencia earned the European Green Capital 2024 title due to past and current achievements in climate neutrality and sustainable tourism, as well as being fair and inclusive throughout a green transition. What sort of advice would you offer other urban centers about how to best achieve or come close to achieving improvements in the environment and a great quality of life for residents and visitors alike?

Valencia had been working toward sustainable goals for several years, and in 2017 it became World Capital of Sustainable Food. Being designated the European Green Capital 2024 recognizes that we are doing well, but it also implies a responsibility to maintain these sustainable practices and strengthen not just Valencia, but future Green Capitals. It is necessary to share our knowledge and information with other cities and municipalities. We know that transforming a food system is a titanic mission. It is like the fight against hunger; it is not achieved overnight. However, if we step back for a moment and look at history, we see that some things that once seemed like unattainable utopias are now small realities. Consider public procurement policy in cities like Copenhagen, which has been transformed thanks to Betina Bergman Madsen, who helped the city reach a goal of serving 90 percent organic food in all municipal building kitchens in 2016. There is also the Malabo Montpellier Panel, a group of European and African food policy experts who work collaboratively to support the development of regional agriculture and promote food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The main advice we would give to other urban food policy organizations is to generate a space for knowledge that involves the citizens themselves. Rather than focus on major campaigns with international meetings and big announcements, which can be lost to the common citizen, we try to include the citizens of Valencia in our programming. Citizens don’t need to be experts in food policy to be involved in this space. We value the opinions of all: architects, economists, geographers, historians, nutritionists, doctors, journalists, teachers, schoolteachers, housewives’ associations, cultural associations, and everyone else. Slow, steady campaigns are more effective long term. 

What do you hope to see for the future of food policy in Valencia? Spain? Europe? the rest of the world?

What anyone involved in these issues is waiting for is similar to what we have here in Valencia, which is a slow but unstoppable transformation. But we are no longer just talking about a question of food or nutrition; we are talking about something much more valuable and more powerful, which is to dignify the lives of millions of people. The United Nations understands that food can be used to achieve scenarios that dignify people’s lives, not just through a balanced or coherent diet, but through systems of economy–a relationship between resources and needs that dignifies the lives of millions of women, fights against climate change, and provides security for children, families, and people close to them.

We hope the slow transformation that has taken place in Valencia (which we can already see has been used as an example by many other cities around the world) will soon expand to a national level in Spain and perhaps even to the rest of Europe. Europe’s identity is linked to a model based on people’s dignity – not so much on maximizing profits. Hopefully this will be achieved in record time, because from an analytical point of view, the historical conditions that have led to the problems we have today no longer exist. The problems that exist today are problems of the 19th and 20th century, and these problems can no longer be allowed in the modern day. 

That is what we hope for.

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