by Whitner Chase, Humanitas Global
With a staggering 2 billion more mouths to feed in a short 35 years, a supply-side focus on food security seems to be a logical approach to feeding the 7.3 billion people who currently occupy Planet Earth. Increasing production is one way to ensure that smallholder farmers in rural areas of developing countries will be able to produce enough food for themselves to eat and sustain a viable business operation. However, in an even shorter 15 years, 5 billion people, most of them in Asia or Africa, will live in urban regions. That’s over half of the world’s projected population. Suddenly, it seems that “feeding the world” is not a challenge of producing enough for us all, but rather, in our food’s distribution.
Urban agriculture can be a partial, yet major solution to this problem. Gaining popularity in recent years, growing food in cities has received heavy press in developed nations as a way to sate the hipster’s hankering for local food. However, urban agriculture has a strong potential to benefit people with real food access issues across the globe.
Urban agriculture can manifest in many forms: subterranean, vertically, on rooftops, in beehives, and in many other innovative variations. However, in most communities, especially in developing countries, urban agriculture mainly appears in the form of community gardens. These small areas of public land are managed by many members of the neighborhood, each typically cultivating his or her own plot of fresh vegetables and herbs. Many urban dwellers don’t live within a reasonable distance from a grocery, so access to locally- sourced food is important for ensuring a nutritious diet. Even if there is a grocery nearby, self-grown food is likely cheaper than what a store can offer. Additionally, proponents of urban agriculture value it as more than just a way to fill in the gaps of the established food system, citing the activity as a social, environmental, and economic boon.
There is a large amount of untapped potential in urban agriculture. Low-income people in developing countries are beginning to look at it as a way of making a living. Whether they keep a few livestock in a Sub-Saharan African city (pg. 7 of this report), or work as farmhands on larger-scale operations, urban dwellers can profit from farming and serve their neighbors, too. Urban agriculture won’t be supplanting the current food system anytime soon, but the industry can do a lot of good, and has a lot of growing yet to do (pun not intended). However, according to the RUAF Foundation, a global network focused on urban agriculture and city food strategies, urban farming activities are not legal in many cities around the world, thanks to existing zoning paradigms. RUAF also notes that more cities are becoming aware of urban agriculture’s importance in fighting poverty and malnutrition, and are beginning to amend laws and policies that limit the practice.
On World Food Day in October, 45 globally significant cities will gather at the Milan Expo to sign the landmark Urban Food Policy Pact (UFPP), a document that will bind signatories to communicate with each other and coordinate the best international food policies. The cities hope that the UFPP will change the way that urban food systems are structured, creating a more just and sustainable world. Although no new policies will be outlined in the pact itself, the UFPP should accelerate the percolation of new urban food policy efforts.
As the United Nations moves past its Millennium Development Goals and into post-2015 action, urban agriculture remains more relevant than ever to the mission of the organization. Two reports from the UN demonstrate both the potential and challenges of urban agriculture. Building on an earlier FAO report from 2008, the 2015 UN Brief on Urban Agriculture says that higher (in some cases) and more efficiently produced yields can be improved by increased political and financial support. Taken together, the evolution of urban agricultural efforts is evident, but it is clear that much more research is needed to determine the activity’s efficiency at different scales, what sort of policy development would be most effective for its growth, and further, its ability to feed the masses.
When development professionals set out to “feed the world,” it is important to anticipate where the mouths are headed. Today, urban agriculture’s viability as a major solution to food access is limited by technology and policy barriers. As the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are set in the coming months and the world’s cities come together for the UFPP, growing urban populations will be in the limelight they deserve, and urban agriculture rightly honored as an opportunity to alleviate food injustice in cities everywhere.