March 2, 2016 | By

Growing Food for Growing Cities: Food Security in an Urbanizing World

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to launch a new blog series, “Growing Food for Growing Cities,” to explore the challenges posed to global food security by urbanization and the opportunities it creates for small-scale farmers to connect with burgeoning urban markets. We will publish one post each week addressing these issues, and our series will culminate with the release of a new Council report at the Global Food Security Symposium 2016. Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on April 26.

The World’s Population Is Rapidly Urbanizing

Cities worldwide are growing rapidly, and on an enormous scale—today, more people live in urban areas than in rural ones, and by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. This urbanization is concentrated in the developing world—of the 2.5 billion people expected to add to the world’s urban population by 2050, 90 percent of them will live in Asia and Africa. Just three countries in these regions—Nigeria, India, and China—will account for more than one third of urban population growth during this period.  

While the thought of urbanization may conjure images of global megacities like Beijing and Delhi, the majority of urbanization actually occurs in small and midsize cities and towns. According to the UN, half of the world’s urban residents live in settlements of less than 500,000 people—and only one in eight live in cities of more than 10 million. These smaller settlements are often overlooked by international investment and urban policy planning, but they are deeply intertwined with rural areas and economies.

The sheer volume of people that will populate urban areas by 2050, and the profound increases to urban food demand that will result, call for the attention of the international community to address the impact of urbanization on the global food system.

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Urbanization Is Changing the Global Food System

Urbanization presents both an opportunity and a challenge to food security and agriculture. Growing urban centers offer new markets for farmers and rural entrepreneurs as well as opportunities for greater production, especially as retailers have engaged more directly in farm sourcing to deliver food to urban areas. Within cities, urbanization drives income growth, allowing people not only to buy larger quantities of food, but also to demand more diverse food. As caloric intake has increased in cities, so has the consumption of meat, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. These foods are the building blocks of a nutritious diet. They are also high-value agricultural products that can boost incomes for the farmers who produce them.

However, despite the opportunities presented by growing urban markets, many smallholder producers in the rural areas of developing countries are ill-equipped to access them. Those farmers without easy access to roads or water, or who cannot produce food consistent with retail standards, are often excluded from market participation. As such, urbanization can undermine agricultural production, exacerbate inequality, and put rural areas at risk of marginalization and poverty.

Urbanization can also exacerbate poverty and hunger within cities. As cities have grown, the numbers of poor and hungry urban residents have risen alongside the urban population. Developing countries are particularly susceptible to this effect—40 percent of urban residents in developing countries live in slums, entrenched in poverty. Poor urban residents spend, in some cases, nearly 80 percent of their incomes on food and are highly vulnerable to food price spikes. Thus, they are often forced to consume nutrient-deficient, highly-processed, or insufficient amounts of food in the face of budget constraints.

Moving Forward

Feeding the world’s cities will depend on the ability of farmers to produce and deliver a sufficient food supply to burgeoning urban markets. Even as urbanization puts a number of demands on the food system, it also presents an immense opportunity for private sector investment and policy coordination. To nourish cities adequately and effectively will require enormous support for transportation infrastructure, production efficiency, climate resilience, farmer organizations, entrepreneurship, nutrition, and female empowerment, to name a few. With the right investments and policies in place, urbanization can spur widespread economic development for both rural producers and urban consumers.

The global food system must modernize and develop in order to feed cities sustainably, efficiently, and safely. How? Over the next eight weeks, the Council on Global Affairs will continue to explore this question ahead of the Global Food Security Symposium 2016. At that event, the Council will release a new report, Growing Food for Growing Cities: Transforming Food Systems in an Urbanizing World, which will make recommendations on how the global food system can ensure an enduring, affordable, and nutritious food supply for an increasingly urban global population.

See more posts in this blog series:

Growing Food for Growing Cities: Achieving Inclusive Growth
Growing Food for Growing Cities: Engaging the Private Sector
Growing Food for Growing Cities: Tackling Food Waste along the Supply Chain
Growing Food for Growing Cities: Food System Resilience in the Face of a Changing Climate
Growing Food for Growing Cities: Delivering Good Nutrition
Growing Food for Growing Cities: Food System Development to Improve Food Security
Growing Food for Growing Cities: Urbanization as an Opportunity for Many Small-Scale Farmers


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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