Urban Food Security in the Global South: Three Ideas

Until recently, it was widely thought that half of the world’s population lived in cities. The United Nations places the global number at 55 percent, with Africa at 43 percent and Asia at 50 percent. But a novel methodology used by the European Commission, which draws on high-resolution satellite imagery, suggests the “degree of urbanization” may be nearly twice as high. In this new paradigm, Africa today is 81 percent, and Asia is 89 percent urban.

Those are eye-popping estimates. They are probably overstated, as researchers at New York University recently countered. Even so, the general point is that cities are, arguably, bigger than we once thought—and rapidly getting bigger, especially in Africa.

What does greater, accelerating urbanization mean for food security? It means urban food systems in the global South deserve a specific place at the table of development priorities. Here are three ideas to help create that space.

Idea 1: Distinguish Urban Food Security from Rural Food Security

Historically—and especially since the food price spikes of 2007-2008—food security research, policy, and programming has been practically synonymous with agricultural and rural development. There are plenty of reasons to invest in agricultural development when food security is the goal. For example, most people who are food insecure in Africa live in rural areas as farmers. Plus, agriculture-led growth is two to three times more effective at reducing poverty (a root cause of food insecurity) than an equivalent amount of growth generated in other sectors. But urban food security has unique challenges for which agricultural development programs are not an immediate solution. Consider the “double burden” of undernutrition and obesity. A recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report observed that in Africa and Asia, obesity is trending upward. Obesity is a symptom of a broken food system that prioritizes the production and consumption of cereal grains, animal proteins, and processed foods. It also reflects the difficulty poor households face in locating and affording nutritious foods.

Urban food security has unique challenges for which agricultural development programs are not an immediate solution.

Urban food security needs research, policy, and practical solutions that address issues like the double burden. There is some encouraging progress on this front. For example, in Chile, the government imposed marketing restrictions on food companies, banning the use of iconic cartoon characters from sugary cereal boxes. Regulation alone, while often necessary, is insufficient. The private sector needs incentives to address obesity, not just disincentives. Scorecards like the Access to Nutrition Index provide an opportunity for multinational food companies to improve their nutrition-related commitments, building public goodwill and shareholder value in the process.

Idea 2: Prepare for Conflicts (And Call It Peace-Building)

Food insecurity continues to plague much of East Africa, in large part due to droughts stemming from El Niño and climate change in recent cropping seasons. However, in places like South Sudan, conflict is also a principal driver. Despite a revitalized peace deal in September between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and the rebel leader Riek Macher, the seven-year-old country remains on the precipice. According to the Famine Early Warning System Network, most of South Sudan is either in the Crisis (Level 3) or Emergency (Level 4) phase of acute food insecurity. Disrupted humanitarian assistance could upgrade the situation to Level 5: Famine. In Juba, the nation’s capital, the situation may be even worse. A recent assessment found that three-quarters of households are food insecure, and that half spend at least 65 percent of their total budget just on food expenditures. The rural poor can often supplement food they buy with food they grow, and higher food prices can provide these growers with extra cash. For the urban poor who rely strictly on markets, however, food price spikes are disastrous.

Because urban consumers are particularly susceptible to food price spikes, and because political unrest has been shown to increase food prices, we know conflict shapes urban food security. But our understanding is vague, and that makes practical solutions ambiguous. As such, prepping urban food systems for conflict should start with thorough, clear-eyed assessment. For example, if municipal governments better understood the key vulnerabilities in their food systems (e.g., chokepoints in rural-urban supply chains carrying staple foods), they could diversify, and so strengthen, the linkages between rural producers and urban consumers. If they better understood their latent resources (e.g., nimble, sprawling informal food economies comprised of markets, kiosks, and produce carts) they could leverage them when conflict disrupts formal food systems, including supermarkets and corner shops.

Prepping urban food systems for conflict is not a paranoid politics. It is an evidence-based investment in peace, because just as conflict shapes urban food security, so has food insecurity been shown to drive political instability. This vicious circle is on the U.S. government’s radar; as former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper put it to the Senate Select Committee in 2014, “the lack of adequate food will be a destabilizing factor in countries important to U.S. national security.” The point is that, where food systems in cities are concerned, there is more work to do. But whose work is it?

Prepping urban food systems for conflict is not a paranoid politics. It is an evidence-based investment in peace.

Idea 3: Make the Public Sector Great Again

Painting governments in the Global South as merely weak, fragile, and corrupt is a lazy colonial tradition we need to lay to rest. To be sure, the problems are real. But so are the assets, and we have not spent enough time looking for them. That is starting to change. New research has identified vibrant “pockets of effectiveness” in the public sectors of Brazil (National Bank for Economic Development), Nigeria (National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control), Suriname (State Oil Company), China (Sino-Foreign Salt Inspectorate), and Taiwan (Taiwan-China Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction). These are gold standards the development community can build upon. For example, donors and national governments could convene and connect neighboring countries to share experiences or provide awards that offer high-profile recognition of a job well done.

The majority of urban population growth in Africa is taking place in areas largely devoid of infrastructure: informal settlements, where food insecurity is already particularly high. New infrastructure is a rapidly mounting need that poses a direct threat to urban food systems. Municipal finance reform in sub-Saharan Africa—where, since 2004, bond issuance rates have been 1 percent of the U.S. amount— is critical for underwriting infrastructure projects. After all, roads carry food, utilities power its cleaning and preparation, and telecommunications facilitate market transactions and administration.

Although effective local governance is a key result outlined in the U.S. government’s 2017-2021 Global Food Security Strategy, little is known about its role in urban food systems. That may seem like a boring warrant for more research on the topic, but focused inquiry has the potential to identify positive incentives and creative mechanisms by which mayors and other municipal leaders in the Global South can evoke meaningful change in their food systems.

As the world’s population grows and urbanizes, our concepts for food security need to evolve accordingly. Indeed, although the international development community has the capacity to help cities in the Global South secure food for themselves, the challenges to that end are shifting, and we need to understand them.

Christian Man is a research fellow with the Global Food Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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).

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Christian Man
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Global Food Security Program