Who feeds the cities?

by Luise Steinwachs last modified 17 October 2017 06:45 PM
Who feeds the cities?

FAO: SOFA Report 2017

17 October 2017

With mega cities "mushrooming" all over the world, one must wonder how they can be supplied with enough, and healthy, food. Ideas range from an increased rural production to urban gardening and  technically complex solutions like vertical indoor gardens. As Christians, we are called to side with people who live in poverty and who are marginalized. For me and my colleagues at Bread for the World, it is important to ask: What does all this mean for the rural population and for small scale farmers?

The last SOFA (i.e. State of Food and Agriculture) report of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been presented at annual meeting of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in Rome some days ago.

Today there are 28 mega cities worldwide with more than 10 million inhabitants. By 2030, they will be 41. At the same time, the absolute number of people living in cities is also growing: in 2050, about 6.5 billion people will live in cities (today: 4 billion). Around 90 per cent of the growth of urban population is expected in Africa and Asia.

At the same time, only 20 per cent of the urban population lives in cities with a population of five to ten billion people or more. For 2030 it is projected that the majority lives in cities with less than one million people, 80 per cent out of them in towns with less than half a million. The FAO speaks about a “rural urban spectrum” that ranges from mega cities to big regional centers, smaller market towns to rural areas.

Poverty in rural areas

The poverty rate in rural areas is still much higher than in cities. This is one reason why migration from rural to urban areas is persistent. The FAO report highlights the relevance of food systems for (1) urban food systems and (2) the income and development opportunities of the rural population. Feeding the cities could be a way to improve the situation in the countryside.

The positive aspects are obvious: Diversified food systems that are linked to urban settlements create jobs and income in rural areas and possibly discourage people from migrating to cities. This includes companies that process, pack, transport, store, market and sell food as well as those which provide inputs like seeds, tools and services. If this system is complemented by supporting infrastructure – streets, electricity, storage facilities, cooling possibilities – then the increasing demand of a growing urban population can stimulate rural development.

However, it is easy to anticipate another repeat of what happens so often: Where there is profit to make, the big actors enter the game – food multinationals, industrial farms, processing industries and traders.  On this threat, the report stays vague and only mentions “supportive public policies and investment” as necessary so that the growing demand is indeed beneficiary for the rural development.

A focus on livelihoods of small scale farmers is needed

If – as the report shows – 85% of agricultural farms worldwide are smaller than two hectares and if this tendency of the decreasing sizes of farms continues, it becomes obvious that there is more at stake than just the linkage of rural producers and urban demand. This size is too small to be economically viable.

It is not enough when the FAO – alongside its recommendation to increase productivity through fertilizers and high-yielding crop varieties – also mentions agroecology. It is high time to focus on the livelihoods of rural farmers, their access to land and water, to seeds and other resources. Land tenure rights have to be strengthened. This is why the Civil Society Mechanisms of the CFS emphasize that the rural sector should not only be seen as a reservoir of resources, products and cheap labor for growing cities.

The challenge remains to work towards a transformation of the rural space – in connection to the urban space – in a way that protects and expands the rights of small scale farmers and supports their production methods.

The original version of this blog post, in German, is available at: https://info.brot-fuer-die-welt.de/blog/stadt-land-essen


The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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