The New Urban Agenda: Tackling Food Insecurity in Urban Areas


Today more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and the number of urban citizens is expected to grow exponentially over the coming decades. Cities have become engines of development, accounting on average for more than half of global GDP, and spaces for political participation and social interaction. However, urbanization also poses several challenges to human security. In contexts like Sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, demographic growth coupled with the magnitude and pace of migration have led to the inability of cities to provide adequate public utilities, such as security, education, sanitation and water, which in turn increases the risk to conflict. The magnitude of these challenges, but also the great potential that cities have in promoting sustainable development and peace, make an international strategy and commitment to prioritize sustainable urban governance critical.

This week, delegates from all over the world are gathered in Quito, Equator, for the United National Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (HABITAT III) to discuss and launch a new Urban Agenda. The latter will set a new global strategy on urbanization which should determine priorities for policymakers at international, national and local level for the next two decades. The agenda aims to identify areas, which are key for urban development, and set in place a new framework, which will facilitate engagement of different stakeholders and a better coordination between different levels of governance. The agenda is ambitious and takes into account almost every aspect of urban development. One issue that stands out as a priority area is food security. By looking at food security from the perspective of cities, this blog will suggest that while city governments require more power and skills to adopt specific and tailored responses to local challenges, certain issues cannot be solved by focusing at the urban level only.

Urban growth has deeply transformed the food demand often with national and regional consequences. Not only has the demand risen but the emergence of new dietary habits has imposed adjustments to the food production system. As economies grew, people started to shift away from traditional diets towards food crops that often required a greater water footprint. For example, the massive consumption of beef in Chinese megalopolises, or the rice consumption in Indian cities are overstretching the environmental ability to cope with the demand, resulting in massive water usage – for fodder and rice – and loss of crop diversity.

Food production continues to primarily depend on the countryside, however the rural population has declined to 46% on average. Hence, as fewer people in the rural areas are producing food, the national food security becomes increasingly dependent on the ability to enhance the national (staple) food production capacity, and the ability of a country to purchase food items on international markets to satisfy the increasing urban demand.

Food security has already become a challenge in many urban contexts, especially in fast-growing cities where, as an effect of high demand, underdeveloped market and information infrastructure, access to affordable food has become an issue. In many cities, the urban poor spend up to 90 percent of their household income on food. Continuous lack of sufficient and nutritious food affects the physical development of children, in extreme leading to stunting and wasting, but it also has an impact on the ability to study and work. As an effect of these dynamics, recent studies confirm that the number of undernourished people is expected to increase as urbanization rates accelerate.

Food insecurity has been both a cause and consequence of conflict in cities. As happened in 2006 and 2008, cities have become the theatre of riots and protests due to the price hikes on international markets. Failing harvests, demand for bio-fuel crops and hedging were identified as the main causes of the violence that erupted in a number of cities across Latin America, Asia and Africa.

The HABITAT agenda fully recognizes the multi-dimensionality of food security, including social inequalities, economic access, education, the environmental linkages, and the rural and urban dimension. Solving these challenges will be a difficult task. The agenda makes some important progress in recognizing the need to coordinate and to design approaches that address food security issues in relation to other sectors. However, more is needed to address the challenges that food security poses to cities.

First, national and local authorities need to invest in promoting a more responsible production and consumption chain. This would involve research, education and awareness raising activities with responsible organizations on the role of, for example:

  • Access to (traditional) seed varieties;
  • An effective protection of the right to food;
  • Improved cooperation between public and private actors in relation to food security;
  • The fundamental links between urban and rural;
  • Unequal access to affordable and good quality food on the individual well-being and social dynamics in the urban area;

Second, given the interconnection between urban, rural, and national dimensions, it is worth exploring alternative forms of governance. Municipal institutions can become essential linking pins between the various levels of governance and non-state actors. Horizontal coordination between different government sectors and non-state actors as well as vertical coordination between (inter)national governmental layers have to be strengthened. It would also be paramount to stimulate the exchange of good practices with other municipalities and existing networks, and make use of existing forums such as the C40 to facilitate exchanges on an ongoing basis. In addition, local governments can support a continuous dialogue between all stakeholders involved in the food production chain. The dialogue should promote a meaningful participation of stakeholders and aim at improving the food security.

Food security is an issue that The Hague Institute has remained concerned with for some time. Click here to view a series of videos on food security by Madeleine Albright, Dr. Abi Williams and more.

Read our other commentary on the UN HABITAT III New Urban Agenda: “An Inclusive Approach to Post-Hurricane Matthew Reconstruction in Haiti” by Ting Zhang.


Food Security

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