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Metropolitan foodsheds: a resilient response to the climate change challenge?


The twenty-first century challenges of climate change and resource scarcity bring a new urgency to the widely recognized sustainability challenges of the US food system. Environmental and social impacts associated with the geographic concentration and specialization in production, processing, and distribution that accompanied industrialization of the US food system have degraded our nation’s capacity to adapt to changing climate conditions. A consensus is emerging in sustainable food system scholarship that two fundamental changes—a transformation of production methods from industrial to sustainable and a transformation of food system geography from regional specialization to regional diversity—should enhance the resilience of the food system to climate change. A review of the literature suggests that transition to a nationally integrated network of sustainable metropolitan food systems (“metropolitan foodsheds”) would improve climate resilience by enhancing three key qualities associated with resilience in social-ecological systems—diversity, modularity, and balanced accumulation of capital assets. These qualities promote the capacity of a system to respond, to recover, and to transform in ways that reduce damaging effects and take advantage of opportunities created by change. Using a set of behavior-based resilience indicators in a review of case study research, this article examines the general resilience of sustainable production and supply chain systems. Sustainable production systems managed by award-winning sustainable food producers expressed all of the behaviors of a resilient system and demonstrated remarkable resilience to weather variability and extremes. These producers attributed the climate resilience of their farms and ranches to high-quality soils, planned biodiversity, and diversified marketing. Like many sustainable producers, these farmers and ranchers not only produce crops and livestock, they also participate in processing, distribution, and retailing. Resilient behavior was also expressed in sustainable supply chains developed by networked community cooperatives and through government investment in a large nonprofit food terminal. As recent food system planning projects in the USA illustrate, there is growing recognition of the potential sustainability and resilience benefits of regional food systems designed to develop positive relationships between the metropolitan core and surrounding areas. We can begin now to shift public support for a transition to more diversified production, to develop regional food system infrastructure, and to conduct comprehensive research to refine resilience indicators and develop food system performance metrics to guide a transformation of the US food system to a more sustainable and resilient future.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Although no simple typology or set of categories can capture the complexity of the farming systems used in US agriculture, we use the terms sustainable and diversified to refer to farming systems that emphasize the use of natural processes within the farming system, often called “ecological” or “ecosystem” strategies, which build efficiency (and ideally resilience) through complementarities and synergies within fields, on the entire farm, and at larger scales across the landscape and community. Such farming systems represent a major departure from the key features which characterize industrial agriculture: large size combined with a high degree of specialization, reliance on off-farm and synthetic inputs, and the production of commodities under contract to food processors and handlers. A food system is the complex set of actors, activities, and institutions that link food production to food consumption. Food systems differ from farming systems in that the primary focus is beyond the farm gate (National Research Council 2010).

  2. 2.

    Agroecosystems are human-dominated ecosystems managed to produce food and other agricultural products. Like all ecosystems, agroecosystems can be described in terms of key structural and functional properties that largely determine their health and productivity. The structural properties—such as species diversity, vegetative architecture, and the food supply web—describe the physical relationships between the organisms that inhabit the ecosystem. Functional properties describe the dynamic processes that capture, move, and store energy and materials in the ecosystem; regulate populations of organisms that inhabit it; and shape the development of the system over time. Because the boundary of the agroecosystem is defined by the user, energy flow and material cycling can be explored at a diversity of nested scales—a field, a whole farm or ranch, or even an entire food system. In each case, the physical components of the agroecosystem can be defined and measured; the interactions between components investigated; and emergent properties like health, profitability, sustainability, and resilience explored (adapted from Gliessman 2007).

  3. 3.

    These case studies are reported in detail in Lengnick 2015a.


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Regina Gregory contributed to the final editing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Laura Lengnick.

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Lengnick, L., Miller, M. & Marten, G.G. Metropolitan foodsheds: a resilient response to the climate change challenge?. J Environ Stud Sci 5, 573–592 (2015).

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  • Agriculture
  • Food system
  • Sustainability
  • Resilience
  • Climate change
  • Metropolitan foodshed
  • City region
  • Megaregions