18 Dec, 2019

Two faces of the same coin: urbanisation and food insecurity

by Alessandro Balduzzi

Pakistan’s minister for Climate Change Zartaj Gul sounded the alarm of internal migration as one of the biggest problems of his country. Pakistan is just one of several developing countries that have been tackling with increasing internal movements in the last years. Regardless of the specific case, this phenomenon can be explained everywhere through a variety of crosscutting push and pull factors. Lack of food, water, health and education facilities are important triggers for rural communities attracted by better opportunities of livelihood, employment, availability of schools and hospitals in big cities. Water and food scarcity are tightly intertwined with climate change whose side effects include droughts and floods. Since most inhabitants of rural areas in developing contexts are employed in agriculture, urbanization cannot be analyzed without taking into account its effects on food systems.
According to UN estimations, 67, 2 % of the world’s population will be living in urban settlements by the 2050. This unprecedented phenomenon has mainly concerned developing countries and is represented well by the rise of megacities in Asia. This unbalance between urban and rural areas will severely affect the agricultural sector inasmuch as every remaining farmer will have to struggle not only to feed his or her family but also to guarantee food access to three other families living in the city. The need to adapt food production to both a decrease in labor force in agriculture and climate-related problems of food production and availability will number among the most urgent needs in the next decades, as Sylvia Szabo extensively decrypts in her Urbanisation and Food Insecurity Risks: Assessing the Role of Human Development.
Rapid urban growth fosters increased need for food by people living in an environment traditionally deemed as unsuitable to agriculture. At the same time, land in urban peripheries and adjacent rural areas is more and more expensive, which pushes farmers to sell it for non-agricultural uses and leads subsequently to further urban expansion. On its turn, urban expansion fosters the vicious circle of water scarcity, with hydric resources often wasted for domestic and industrial use: less land, less water, less food.
Beside of food availability, the second key element to evaluate food security is food access. Urbanization can be regarded as positive in this sense. Whereas it is not generally problematic in developed countries, food access can be challenging in developing contexts because of lacking infrastructure. Urbanization can get round this lack. Financial access plays an equally important role in urban areas. The overwhelming majority of urban households is forced to buy their food – since they do not grow it themselves – and are therefore dependent on sudden price variations. Dangerously dependent when it comes to low-income dwellers.
FAO’s definition of food security includes access to food which is not just safe and sufficient but also nutritious and responding to dietary needs and preferences. As largely net buyers of food, low-income urban consumers are at risk of consuming insufficient and low-quality food because of lack of financial resources. Their recourse to qualitatively inadequate food – such as street food – can expose them to health risks. Whereas the aforementioned health risks are mainly caused by unhygienic procedures and concern poor households in developing countries, another kind of threat to public health can be found both in developed and developing realities. Processed foodstuffs are often the cheapest and most convenient option in urban contexts. Still, their high content in sugar, artificial sweeteners, coloring agents, fats, preservatives and other chemical additives represents a concrete menace and contributes to the spreading of obesity and chronic diseases all over the world.
Last but not least, food stability is also at stake in developing countries. In such environments, extreme weather events, natural disasters or violent conflicts collide with lack of organization and preparedness. The array of consequences of similar crisis ranges from food shortages and spikes in food prices to massive internal migration – mostly urbanization – and land abandonment. 
When we talk about harmonious urban development, we usually think of less pollution, more parks, more incentives to public transportation, and no architectural barriers. However, food security plays an equally important role in a balanced approach to the sustainable growth of cities. Local authorities, national governments and multilateral institutions must cooperate for the sake of a reliable year-round food supply, facilitated access to food by consumers, favorable conditions for investments in food production, processing and distribution, as well as support to small-scale food and agriculture activities even in urban areas. Still a long way to go on the path to zero hunger.