July 12, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

Urban Populations Have Food Security Issues, Too

Highlights from "Feeding an Urban World:  A Call to Action"

By The Chicago Council on Global Affairs Emerging Leaders Class of 2013

There has been much attention paid lately to the progress made on the United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) Number 1 of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. While it is laudable that 38 countries have met part of the first MDG, we need to look at the numbers on hunger in a variety of contexts to really get the full picture.

The development of sustainable food systems in urban areas is an issue that will increasingly pose challenges to leaders of cities around the world, yet has not been adequately studied.  The Chicago Council Emerging Leaders Class of 2013 recently released a report that adds to this discussion with a focus on those in urban settings who suffer from hunger and malnutrition.  

The challenge of hunger in cities

By 2050 the world's total population will increase to 9.6 billion (from 7 billion today) with the world’s urban population nearly doubling from 3.3 billion to 6.3 billion.  The bulk of this growth will occur in developing portions of the world and among low income populations.  Cities are already the definitive mode of human settlement. By 2030 it is expected that six out of every 10 people will live in a city and that by 2050 this proportion will increase to seven out of 10. Over this same period, the rural population of the less developed regions is expected to decline from 3.1 billion to 2.9 billion.  Megacities in India and China will have populations of over one billion people cramming into their housing and infrastructure, increasing demands for key resources.

UN, “World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision,” Department of Economic and Social Affairs 

Migration to cities in developing countries and limited economic opportunity for those with low levels of education and low job skills, is causing the “urbanization of poverty,” or a shift of poverty centers from rural to urban areas. Because of unequal access to food, there is roughly the same proportion of food insecure households and malnourished children in urban slums as in rural areas.

Farmer migration to urban areas is another issue affecting food security in urban areas.  Along with with an aging farmer workforce, farmer migration results in fewer farmers to harvest the land. This complex situation, combined with the paradox of increasing obesity and nutritional deficiency, makes food security an enormous challenge for cities to tackle.  Two billion people suffer from one or more micronutrient deficiencies, while 1.4 billion are overweight, of whom 500 million are obese, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.  In addition, 26 per cent of all children under five are stunted and 31 per cent suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

Policymakers and researchers tend to focus on issues that pertain to rural life in order to solve food security issues, but research and statistics on urban food security are hard to find. Sources such as the Economist Intelligence Unit Global Food Security Index or the USDA International Food Security Assessment (2012) do not disaggregate the data for each county, so it is difficult to know how much and what component of food insecurity information relates to rural versus urban areas.  The International Food Policy Research Institute released a report in 2009 analyzing which agricultural interventions around the world made significant improvements in quantity and quality of foods grown, but nothing similar exists for urban food security issues.

Urban population by major geographical area (in percent of total population) 

While rapid growth in the emerging economies over the next couple of decades will pull hundreds of millions of people out of absolute poverty by 2050, this doesn’t mean they will be food secure. Higher incomes can also be associated with excess consumption of sugar, salt, animal fat, alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco and can lead to an increase in many types of diseases associated with such a diet as well as with more sedentary urban lifestyles. This combination of factors leads increasingly to the double burden of poverty and malnutrition at both the ends of the spectrum in urban areas, with people being both undernourished and obese.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon created the Zero Hunger Challenge in Brazil last June; the challenge aims for a future where every individual has adequate nutrition. Its five objectives are to make sure that everyone in the world has access to enough nutritious food all year long; to end childhood stunting; to build sustainable food systems; to double the productivity and income of smallholder farmers, especially women; and to prevent food from being lost or wasted.

The hungry and malnourished in the urban centers around the world cannot be left out of this effort.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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