Nutrition and Food Security in the City

How do we feed a growing, richer, more urban population? We often hear about how demographic trends will shape food security: we will need to feed over 9 billion people in 2050. At the same time, we will see massive urbanization; almost all future population growth between now and 2050 will be urban, with the majority of it taking place in Asia and Africa. In 2010, Africa and Asia remained the two most rural regions of the world. By 2100, the urban population of Africa will increase by 2.5 billion people and the Asian urban population will grow by 2 billion people. It is expected that incomes will rise and people will demand more food, especially meat, dairy products, and processed foods so we will need to at least double food production by 2050 to meet global demand. And we need to do it using less land and water and in an environmentally sustainable way.

The commonly discussed solution is an admittedly over-simplified view has been to invest in smallholder farmers, improve their productivity to feed the urban centers that are popping up during the rural-to-urban migration since currently seventy percent of the poor in developing countries live in rural areas and are engaged in agriculture.

If only it were so straightforward. However, this solution is incomplete and does not take into account some of the major implications of urbanization. Although we cannot underscore enough the importance of investing in smallholder farmers, it’s time to think more strategically about how we will address the food security challenges of rapid urbanization. The rural and urban poor in low- to middle-income import dependent countries are among the world’s most vulnerable and urban challenges differ significantly from those of rural populations.

Urbanization: A New Set of Challenges

Historically, increases in agricultural productivity have served as a push factor for urbanization. As farms become more productive and profitable there is excess farm labor that then migrates to urban centers. We have seen this take hold during the industrial revolutions of Western Europe, North America, East Asia and other parts of the world, as people left agriculture for manufacturing-based jobs in cities.

However, while urbanization in the past promoted economic growth and prosperity, the rapid urban expansion that is underway now, particularly in Africa and South Asia, does not seem to be following historical trends. Urbanization today in the developing world is occurring faster than the cities can absorb. Poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition are shifting rapidly from rural areas in the developing world to its urban centers.

Most of the urban growth in Africa and in South Asia is occurring in secondary cities without adequate budgets, planning, or services and without significant job opportunities. This urban expansion is largely uncontrolled and unmanaged. In many parts of the developing world, urbanization is tantamount to slum creation. Over one billion people already live in urban slums in Africa and South Asia. In Africa, 72 percent of the urban population lives in slum conditions.

What is Urban Food Insecurity?

Urban dwellers, and especially the urban poor, are increasingly much more affected by international food prices than small farmers. Food security in urban areas is tied to purchasing power whereas in rural areas food security is related to the availability of food. In many cities, the urban poor spend up to 90 percent of their household income on food. Compounding the problem, urban centers are highly dependent on imported foods and are surprisingly divorced from food produced within their country or regionally. In many cities in Africa, 30-50 percent of food staples and vegetable oil found in the markets are imported. Imported staples most often cost more than urban garden produce or street vender foods.

The ability to buy and store food is not an option for most of the urban poor as they cannot afford refrigerators and access to reliable electricity is a luxury for very few. The options are to borrow food from relatives, borrow money at usurious rate to buy food, or eat the cheaper and questionable street food. Studies show that in many African cities, up to 70 percent of the caloric intake of a poor urban household is from street food. Street venders are largely unregulated, lack access to clean water and refrigeration, and do not adhere to any standards of hygienic food preparation and packaging.

The most common solution is for a household to cut back on the amount and diversity of food. If these coping mechanisms are necessary for any length of time, food insecurity increases and malnutrition rates climb quickly, especially among children. We are all aware that the link between proper nutrition and normal physical and cognitive growth is a hardwired system; if children are malnourished from conception to two years, the impact is life-long as their physical growth and intellectual development will be permanently impaired. That is a scary prospect when experts tell us that by 2030, 60 percent of the urban slum population, with high child malnutrition rates, will be under the age of 18. This has huge implications not only for national productivity but also for political stability.

Most of the urbanization in the developing world is occurring in fragile and conflict-affected states. That is an ominous trend. Fragile states are the most susceptible to urban poverty, food insecurity, high malnutrition, and are the least able to deal with them. For urban growth and economic prosperity to evolve and be sustainable there must be good governance, rule-of-law, transparency, equitable access to education, health care, employment, and an enabling environment for national and international private sector investment. These characteristics of a well-functioning nation state are in short supply in the world’s 60 fragile states.

Naturally, these are issues for the host governments but they are also concerns for the international community, including the United States. Discontent over poverty and food insecurity in rural areas is one thing, but it becomes politically explosive when it occurs in cities as we saw in 2007-2008. During the Arab Spring, poverty and food shortages were contributing factors to other more deep seeded political issues. We leave urban poverty and food insecurity unaddressed at our peril.

Policy Steps to Improving Urban Food Security

The global community has witnessed a revival of agricultural development efforts since the 2007-2008 food price spikes. Initiatives like the G8’s 2009 L’Aquila Summit pledges, the United States’ Feed the Future program, the World Bank-managed Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), and 2012 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, are critical to stimulating agricultural productivity and economic growth in the developing world. All of these initiatives aim to improve food security and reduce rural poverty by stimulating agricultural productivity and economic growth. They all focus on investing in smallholder farmers, especially women and girls, and include a focus on nutrition, sustainable agricultural growth, and investing in research and development. These initiatives are critical to reducing rural poverty around the world, especially in Africa and South Asia, and to stimulating agricultural productivity and economic growth in the developing world.

However, given the urbanization trends in Africa and Asia, the policy community needs to build upon the groundwork laid by these initiatives to take steps to ensure the food security of growing urban populations. There are five steps that can be taken now:

First, the international community should acknowledge that poverty and its attendant food insecurity and malnutrition issues are no longer exclusively rural concerns; they are serious urban development problems with national and international security ramifications.

Second, Feed the Future began by focusing on the good performing countries in the developing world for good and understandable reasons. The need to address urban poverty, food security, and nutrition is equally critical in fragile states. Fragile states present complicated policy, development, and security environments which require new approaches by the international community. Feed the Future, as a whole-of- government initiative already has the requisite skills and resources to begin to address these problems.

Third, the private sector, in collaboration with Feed the Future in its priority countries and in the six African countries in the “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition,” should build linkages between a country’s domestic food production and its urban markets and pay special attention to the employment, health, and nutritional needs of the urban poor. The World Bank’s Global Agriculture and Food Security Program should do the same.

Fourth, universities and international agricultural research centers should begin to focus more of their research on the food security and nutrition needs of the urban poor in the developing world.

Fifth, the NGO community, like the donor development agencies, has not expended great energy on urban problems and their community-level expertise is sorely needed.

The platform to address these urban issues has been created by the Feed the Future initiative. The partnerships it has molded to attack the problems of rural poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition can serve as a launching pad for an expanded effort in the in the developing world’s urban centers.

Ambassador William J. Garvelink is a senior adviser with the Global Strategy, International Medical Corps at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Kristin Wedding is a fellow and deputy director with the CSIS Global Food Security Project.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


William J. Garvelink

Kristin Wedding