Can urban food security be part of the solution rather than the problem?

By Delhi 2013 on Fri, 03 May 2013

Written by Lourdes S. Adriano, Agriculture, Food Security and Rural Development Advisor and concurrently Practice Leader 

We all grew up around the stereotype that the farmers grow the food and the cities consume the food.  Can and should  city  residents also produce the food that they consume?

The idea is certainly not far-fetched. 

Food prices continue to increase and remain volatile. Scarce and deteriorated natural resource base coupled with rising occurrence of extreme weather is making it difficult for rural food producers to keep pace with an increasing population, rising incomes, and changing food diets.  

By 2050, 67% of the estimated 5.1 billion people in Asia will be residing in the cities. The bulk of global food demand will come from Asia’s emerging urban centers whose demand for food will rise by as much as 163% between 2009 and 2050. The bulk of food supply will also have to be produced in developing economies. 

Asian cities will need to be part of the food security solution rather than be the viewed as the source of the problem. 

In his talk at ADB in July last year, Prof. Paul Teng of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University provided instructive examples how urban farming is becoming part of the solution in the global quest for food security—using less land,  less water and less labor.

In Singapore, which imports over 90% of its food given limited land resources and a largely urbanized environment, new strategies are being employed to increase food supply. These include vertical farming through the use of rooftops, fishery production, and the creation of specialty farms such as mushroom and goat. Last year, the first vertical vegetable farm using stacked rotating trays was launched.

Similarly, urban and peri-urban forms of agriculture are being developed in other Asian countries even as small to mid-sized cities still have substantial parts of their landscape occupied by farming activities. Hanoi reportedly produces up to 80% of fresh vegetables; 50% of pork, poultry, and fresh water fish; and 40% of eggs. Shanghai likewise reportedly supplies the bulk of its needs for vegetables, milk, eggs, pork, and poultry. 

Across Asia, increased interest in urban farming has fast-tracked a slew of modern technologies to alleviate food insecurity and poverty—hydroponics (growing plants in water), aeroponics (growing plants suspended in air), and aquaponics (combining vegetable hydroponics with fish culture). 

In the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as well as in Singapore, commercial aeroponic vegetable farms are in production. In Zhejiang Province, PRC, 1 rooftop rice farm has yielded over 9 tons per hectare. In the south of Seoul, a dedicated multistory building was built to be a prototype vertical farm, using the latest in growing technology, lighting, and electronics.

In the Philippines, the NGO Gawad Kalinga not only helps build houses for the urban poor but also helps empower them to be food self-sufficient. Volunteers conduct training on backyard farming, poultry raising, and urban agriculture, which optimize unused spaces in the community.

In other parts of the world, city dwellers are also testing the limitless possibilities of urban farming. The case of Ron Finley is a riveting example. Fed up with the unhealthy “food desert” surrounding his children in South Central Los Angeles, he took a shovel and planted vegetables in the strip of dirt at the curbside in front of his house. When the city tried to shut down his little garden, Finley’s lone fight for healthy, accessible food sparked a community movement to convert abandoned lots, curbsides¸ and traffic islands into edible plots.

These various examples show the way how cities can play a bigger role in food security while building a sense of community and the pathways to a green economy. They may not provide a full solution to food and nutrition insecurity but are part and parcel of it. 

Change can begin in small steps, and it begins now.