April 10, 2013

How Philanthropy Responds to Critical Issues of Food Security in a Rapidly Urbanizing World

By: Heather Grady

Heather Grady is Vice President of the Foundation Initiatives, The Rockefeller Foundation.

In 2013, the Rockefeller Foundation’s one-hundredth year, we have been deeply analyzing the issues and strengths that defined our first century. In that century, we recognized and addressed the link between food and population, most notably through the ‘Green Revolution’ launched by Rockefeller Foundation colleagues and grantees, designed to address hunger and famine. More recently, with the inexorable growth of cities both in terms of population and land area, we have looked at the nexus between cities and agriculture. Indeed, we see this intersection as mission-critical to our dual goals of building resilience against the acute shocks and stresses of our 21st century world, and promoting equitable growth.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Institute for Urban Research catalyzed important cross-sectoral collaboration on this area recently at its conference on Food Security in a Rapidly Urbanizing World. It has been rare that academics, practitioners or policy-makers have looked at the nexus of these two issues. The first Rockefeller Foundation and UPenn conference held about fifty years ago on urban design, featuring participants such as I.M. Pei, Lewis Mumford, architect Louis Kahn, and writer and critic Jane Jacobs, greatly shaped the field of urban studies and criticism for the 20th century. This March 2013 conference contributed again to new partnerships for tackling some of this century’s greatest urbanization challenges. 

Demographic Trends

Last year, we instituted a new process at the Foundation that allows us to scan the horizon of pressing issues to see where we can have significant potential impact. One of the scans we undertook was on the question of “Feeding More with Less.” Through this process, we identified significant relevant trends. One is the expansion of the world’s urban areas, both in terms of population and land area. Between 2011 and 2050, the population is expected to increase by 2.3 billion, to 9.3 billion, with the urban population gaining 2.6 billion and reaching 6.3 billion – in other words, urban areas will absorb all of the population growth and draw in some of the rural population. This will be mostly concentrated in Asia and to a lesser extent in Africa.[1] Much of this will be in second-tier, rather than ‘mega’, cities. Indeed, in the period 2011-2015 nearly half of urban population growth will occur in cities of fewer than half a million people. These cities often have a very different resource base in terms of the influence and capacity of public administration and services, economic activity, and dynamic employment opportunities. And whether second-tier or mega-cities, much of the expansion of urban areas is in unplanned, informal settlements with poor services.

With more young people moving to cities, there will be fewer working in agriculture, particularly youth. The average age for farmers in the US is about 55. In Japan it is 66. In Nigeria and Kenya 55-60, while in Thailand, 42 years.[2]  This is mainly because of increasing mechanization, and because of higher incomes and more opportunities in cities, but there is a worrisome aspect: essentially, young generations are becoming net food consumers rather than producers.

It is estimated that about a fifth of food insecure people are the urban poor. In general when we think of food security in an urbanizing world, there has been a dominant narrative about the “urban bias” – the notion that urban elites, rulers and elected politicians have over centuries suppressed the terms of trade between rural and urban economies to keep food prices for net consumers in cities lower than they really should be for a fair return to farmers. As such, many cities start with a natural advantage from the perspective of skewed economic incentives. In large cities with powerful leaders, supply chains and pricing signals will be maintained in their favor, and food will always be available at a price. Even for the poor in large cities, if prices are maintained artificially low, they benefit. In the short term this is favorable, but as a disincentive to farming in rural areas it poses a threat in the longer term – indeed it is one reason why youth of farming families migrate to cities in the first place. 

There is also the issue of land. The land on which many cities have been built are particularly fertile, and there is continual encroachment onto peri-urban land by development of housing, infrastructure and industry.  While this may make sense from an economic planning point of view – the value of real estate in cities is so high that low-value agriculture won’t make sense from a purely financial analysis – the loss of precious farmland in and around cities has already had an impact on food access, price, and quality in many places. 

Changes in Demand

The second trend is changes in the demand for food and animal feed. As shown in the chart below, in order to meet 2030 food, feed and fuel demand, on present trends, it would require 175 to 220 million hectares of additional cropland, to say nothing of additional inputs of water and nutrients.

There are also significant shifts in dietary demands, particularly among urban dwellers, for more protein and nutrient-rich foods. The increase is most rapid and significant for those whose income moves from about $2 to $10 per day.[1] While this increase is very good news for these populations, and for farmers who sell them their produce, the attendant price rise in food caused by this increase in demand will be felt negatively by those still near or below $2 per day. Targeted attention to those groups is critical.  

Our Changing Climate

The third trend that will shape the future of food security in cities is climate change, which is likely to impact productive agricultural capacity significantly throughout this century. The map below indicates the estimated impacts of climate change alone on food production across the globe. It is particularly striking in certain latitudes where both heat increases and changes in normal rainfall patterns will cause drought, and flooding, and affect agricultural yields. 

This is in addition to environmental degradation and pollution, which continues to weaken soil quality and lessen yields – the OECD reports that 25% of agricultural land is already severely degraded.[1]

As recent years have demonstrated, critical shocks to the food system are severe and frequent, whether they are in the form of weather events, global food price spikes like those we saw in 2007-2008, or the eruption of regional conflict. This landscape and context presents new challenges, both for impoverished urban dwellers, and for farmers – and for the ecological systems and land that will need to support their income, consumption and dietary needs.

For an indicator of how emblematic food is in cities - of broader questions of power dynamics, class, justice and identity - one needs only think of the spark that set off the Arab Spring – a spark that illuminated the deep divisions across the Arab world over political disenfranchisement and low unemployment, underpinned by persistent inequality, and exacerbated by food insecurity and poverty. Only about 10% of wheat in global trade is affected by weather and climate, but in a region so dependent on food imports, with little advancement in drought-resistant local food production, a steady rise in food prices and high spikes twice in recent years really mattered.[2] This is why the Rockefeller Foundation first concerned itself with food security as a matter of advancing international peace just after World War II.

The Concept of Resilience

It is well understood and accepted today that food security is about more than keeping hunger at bay - it’s about stable societies, productive societies – and in our 21st century world, it is about resilient societies. At the Rockefeller Foundation we define resilience as “the ability of a system, entity, community, or person to withstand chronic stresses and acute shocks and disruptions, while still maintaining essential functions and recovering quickly and effectively.” Simply put, resilience is a capacity that enables people, places and systems to survive, adapt, and thrive.

Much of the Foundation’s in-depth learning on resilience has come from the Building Climate Change Resilience Initiative. One component focuses on making agriculture and rural development in Africa more climate-proof. Another component is the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network, also known as ACCCRN, which supports city-wide strategies, and specific investments that advance physical, social, and community resilience. Starting with 10 cities in India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, ACCCRN grantees are leading over 30 new interventions in areas such as land use planning, drainage and flood management, emergency response systems, ecosystem strengthening, and disease surveillance. These interventions demonstrate practical ways to build resilience of systems, sectors, and communities to climate impacts, like rising sea-levels, unpredictable rainfall patterns, and increasing temperatures. This Initiative is expanding from 10 to more than 50 cities, and new countries, while also generating knowledge and platforms to equip national governments, donors, and the private sector to advance this agenda across hundreds more.

In the US, conceptual and practical work was invested in helping post-Katrina New Orleans, and more recently in leading the post-Superstorm Sandy New York State 2100 Commission on Resilience which aims to help New York State, and the cities within it, to become more resilient places.[1]

This work has identified several core characteristics that resilient systems share and demonstrate, both in good times and in times of stress and shocks, to cope with risk and enable positive transformation:

  1. Spare capacity and redundancy, which ensure that there is a back-up or alternative available when a vital component of a system fails.
  2. Flexibility and the ability to change, evolve, and adapt in the face of disaster, shock or chronic stress.
  3. Limited safe failure – not a ‘failsafe’ mode, but the ability to safely fail, to cope with serious disruptions but still retain some functionality, either recovering from the loss or replacing the capability, and preventing failures from rippling across systems.
  4. Rapid rebound - the capacity to re-establish function, re-organize, and avoid long-term disruptions. This exists when a system can swiftly overcome a situation of stress and restore safety, services, and financial stability without experiencing long drawn-out periods of inaction.
  5. Constant learning, with robust feedback loops that sense, provide foresight, and facilitate new solutions as conditions change.  

Resilience strategies emerge when informed by a variety of disciplines including ecology, sociology, and economics.

With these principles in mind, the links between food security and the resilience of urban households, communities, and city-wide systems become clear. Yet much work remains to be done to understand better what makes food systems themselves more resilient to the economic and ecological disruptions that have become so commonplace, which have direct implications for food availability, access, and prices. What concrete steps can be taken to construct food production and supply systems that are more responsive to the needs of city dwellers, especially those who are particularly poor and otherwise vulnerable? What is needed is a combination of better public policies and different market mechanisms.

For example, given that agricultural productivity is already reaching its limits under existing production systems, and becoming further compromised by changes in climate, we must identify ways to increase production without placing additional stress on water, nitrogen and other inputs. In this regard, innovations on the horizon can be applied and scaled up, as long as key actors in government, in the multilateral system, in business, and in civil society form effective partnerships, and drive sufficient ‘impact investments’ into these areas. Such innovations include micro-irrigation, developing more drought- and flood-resistant strains of staples and other food crops, creating 21st-century alternatives to fossil fuel-based fertilizer, and use of more sustainable practices in the production of meat and fish. But to have a positive impact on poor city and rural communities alike, the cost of these innovations must be borne by government or businesses so they are affordable. And the fruits of the innovations have to move rapidly from research lab to farm to city markets.

Urban-Rural, Producer-Consumer

Food security is not just about increasing agricultural productivity; it is also about increasing the purchasing power of poor consumers. National governments and the donor community need to better incorporate into food security programs greater attention to the needs of poor consumers outside the agricultural sector, most in cities. Programs like the United States’ Feed the Future program, and more recently the UN-led New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, can incorporate, and indeed analyze in greater depth, the co-dependencies of rural and urban populations, and the movement of people, money and produce between them. A recent US Agency for International Development strategy recognized this in planning support for promoting co-benefits for farmers and city dwellers through better market linkages and infrastructure.

Urban and Peri-Urban Farming

Expansion and intensification of urban and peri-urban farming is another area where better public policies are critical. The importance of local food availability was illustrated decades ago in Amartya Sen’s seminal work on famines in India, which showed how much slight drops in areas without food buffers matter. The Bengal famine was just a 10% production drop that killed millions. In today’s world, the existence of local buffer supplies that are accessible and affordable can have an enormous impact on human health, and well-being more broadly. While the leaders of large cities usually have the power to keep food prices low and availability high, smaller second-tier cities, where population is growing fastest, may lack the political clout to tip supply chains towards them the way that mega-cities can. Urban and peri-urban farming makes an important contribution.

In Africa, the commercial production of fruit and vegetables provides livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of urban Africans, and food for millions more. For example, the FAO estimates that in Dakar, 7,500 households grow their own food in micro-gardens; in Malawi, 700,000 urban residents practice home gardening; and low-income city gardeners in Zambia make US $230 annually from food sales.[1]

Urban and peri-urban farming has huge resilience building impact. Even a modest local production capacity of the most important perishable goods - produce like onions and tomatoes - can serve as a vital food security buffer in the face of increasing unpredictability and shocks to supply chains from further afield. But despite being an important food buffer, market gardening has grown with very little government recognition or supportive policy-making. As a result, most urban farmers have no title to their land and can lose it overnight. Land ideal for horticulture, especially when used by poor households, is encroached upon by housing, industry and infrastructure. Gardeners overuse pesticides in an effort to maximize production on tiny plots. For these reasons, providing political and institutional support, integrating market gardening into urban planning, and building an efficient supply system are three practices that can make a difference.

[1] World Urbanization Prospects, The 2011 Revision, http://esa.un.org/unup/pdf/WUP2011_Highlights.pdf

[2] Agricultural Council of America, Overland Park, Kansas, 2013 “Agriculture Fact Sheet”, www.agday.org/media/factsheet.php.   Jorgustin, Ken, 2013, “60, The Average Age of Farmers”, Modern Survival Blog, www.modernsurvivalblog.com.  Fuller, Thomas, “Thai Youth Seek a Fortune Away From the Farm”, The New York Times June 4, 2012.  Karuga, James, “Rural youth shatter the myth of farming as a poor man’s profession”, The New Agriculturalist, April 2012.  Momoh, Siaka, “Nigeria’s rising population may spoil agricultural transformation”, BusinessDay Online, June 1, 2012

[3] AGree, Washington DC, 2012, “AGree: Transforming Food and Ag Policy Challenges and Opportunities”, Retrieved from;   www.foodandagpolicy.org/sites/default/files/AGree%20Narative.pdf[1] FAO. 2012. Growing greener cities in Africa. First status report on urban and peri-urban horticulture in Africa. Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, p. 10.

[4] OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2012-2021, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 2012.

[5] Center for American Progress. (2013) The Arab Spring and Climate Change. Retrieved from http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/report/2013/02/28/54579/the-arab-spring-and-climate-change/

[6] NYS2100 Commission, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. (2013) Retrieved from http://www.governor.ny.gov/assets/documents/NYS2100.pdf

[7] FAO. 2012. Growing greener cities in Africa. First status report on urban and peri-urban horticulture in Africa. Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, p. 10.


Urban Link April 2013 (Volume 2013, Issue 4) »

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