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Feeding a Growing Urban Population

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Raphael Dischl

Today, more than half of the world's population lives in cities. By 2050, it will be around 70%, according to United Nations (UN) estimates. How can we supply this growing urban population with food in the long term? This issue poses enormous challenges for people, especially in cities in the Global South.

Healthy, affordable and sustainable food systems are necessary for people to feed themselves in the long term. A food system includes all the activities and actors in a society that are involved in the food supply. In the case of vegetables, for example, it begins with the production of seeds and fertilizer, continues through cultivation and harvesting, processing and packaging, transportation and marketing, and ends with preparation and consumption. It also includes the waste produced along the way, as well as the water and energy used in the process. Furthermore, the jobs and incomes in the food sector are part of the food system. Information, affordability, product qualities, food safety and policies are among other key factors influencing food supply and demand. But the food system also includes our food culture and the way food is distributed and shared in society.

Food systems are sustainable if they enable people to eat a healthy, sufficient and balanced diet in the long term. But our current global food system is far from this standard.

Agriculture accounts for about 70% of the freshwater used by humans, contributing heavily to the depletion and pollution of groundwater reserves and water bodies. Industrial agriculture has led to large-scale soil degradation and, together with rapid urbanization, is the largest contributor to biodiversity loss, including through pesticide use and habitat fragmentation.

Our food system is also highly energy intensive, with around 33% of all greenhouse gas emissions attributable to food production and consumption processes. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that around one-third of all food is lost or thrown away---the equivalent of 1.3 billion tons annually! The growing consumption of meat further increases the pressure on natural resources. For example, large areas of rainforest in Brazil are being cleared to grow soy for animal feed, which is then shipped to Asia for pig fattening.

According to the latest figures, nearly 768 million people suffered from hunger in 2020. Almost one third of the world's population---2.37 billion people---did not have access to sufficient and balanced food. This is despite the fact that current global production could feed 10 billion people. In addition to undernutrition, malnutrition and obesity are rampant due to overconsumption of highly processed, sugary and fatty foods, especially in cities. There is a serious distribution problem in the global food system. This is due to persistent poverty, inequality, conflict, poor governance and marginalization of the most vulnerable people.

Finding common strategies

In 2015, the UN set 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the 2030 Agenda. Goal two aims to eliminate hunger worldwide by 2030. However, transforming food systems requires effort toward all 17 goals, especially in the areas of poverty reduction, climate, drinking water, and resource conservation.

The food crisis of 2007-2008 and the coronavirus crisis have drastically shown us the weaknesses and risks of the globalized food system. In 2007, a nexus of natural events, rising energy prices, increased demand for biofuels and animal feed, and food speculation led to acute price increases and food shortages. In contrast, the current pandemic cut critical "lifelines" in the food system: supply chains faltered, farmers were with crops they couldn't sell, consumers found empty markets, day laborers lost their incomes, essential transportation, health and school services were eliminated, and important social and informal networks were also curtailed by restricted movements. As a result, many people around the world were affected by food insecurity. People in developing countries were hit particularly hard, especially in urban areas.

The two crises highlight the complexity of food systems---and the need for people and organizations from different sectors and disciplines to work closely together to make food systems more resilient and able to withstand crises. To do this, there is an urgent need for a strategy that provides a common direction.

The urgency has been recognized at the political level. In September 2021, the UN will convene the Food Systems Summit during its General Assembly. In the run-up to this summit, the UN called on member states and non-state actors to hold global food systems dialogues. The goal: to broadly discuss the challenges of food systems and formulate measures for their transformation.

But what should a common direction look like? Environmental and development organizations are pushing for food systems to become more resource-efficient, climate-friendly, socially just and sufficiency-oriented. At the same time, large companies from the agri-food industry are positioning themselves. Changing the model of industrial agriculture and growth would mean fundamentally changing their business models. Many civil society organizations point out the danger that the food summit could be misused by large corporations to push private sector agendas and that voices from civil society would not be heard. Various NGOs are therefore planning parallel events to the UN summit to provide a better platform for these voices.

Cities as pioneers

Cities are playing a key role in the process of creating sustainable food systems. They are particularly vulnerable because their supply depends heavily on functioning flows of goods from the surrounding countryside and the world market. Climate-related crop failures, supply chains disrupted by conflict or natural events, or price increases triggered by global trade hit people in cities particularly hard. And people in cities in the Global South often lack social and financial safety nets: Many work in the informal sector, far from family and without agricultural self-sufficiency. During the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of people in Indian cities lost their jobs, and with them their ability to feed themselves on a daily basis. As a result, many returned to their families in rural areas. With the ongoing rural-urban migration, the pressure on cities will continue to grow in the future. However, cities are also characterized by a high diversity of actors, innovation and greater liberty, particularly concerning social norms and rules. As such, they offer a good foundation for addressing challenges in the larger food system.

With the City Region Food Systems development policy approach, special attention is paid to strengthening mutual networking between core cities and their rural hinterlands. Cities usually obtain most of their food, water and energy from the local region. At the same time, they offer jobs, sales markets and services to the surrounding population. Increased regionalization is called for: Local value chains should link farmers from the region more directly with urban markets. This will make the food supply more reliable and efficient in terms of energy consumption and time. Short distribution routes will also reduce food waste and progress will be made toward a circular economy. This means that resources such as water, energy or nutrients are sourced as locally as possible and reused on an ongoing basis. This protects ecosystems and reduces dependence on global material flows and markets. However, the most central demand of the city-region approach is that cities should establish participatory decision-making processes to involve stakeholders from all sectors, both urban and rural, in shaping their food systems.

This year's Helvetas symposium "The Hungry City" is dedicated to the topic of urban food systems and will discuss the opportunities and challenges of cities using the example of the city of Mbeya in Tanzania. The free symposium will take place online on August 31, 2021, and is aimed at development practitioners working in Swiss development assistance.