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Three Trends Shaping the Future of Food Security

Photo credit: Purdue University

For decades, the Rockefeller Foundation has recognized and addressed the link between food and population, and with the inexorable growth of cities, both in terms of population and land area, our work has taken a sharper focus on the nexus between cities and agriculture. Indeed, we see this intersection as mission-critical to our dual goals of building resilience against the acute shocks and stresses of our 21st century world, and promoting equitable growth.

We’ve been thinking about our potential impact on a topic we call “Feeding More with Less,” and have identified three of the biggest trends which will shape these issues for the foreseeable future.

Trend One: Expansion of Urban Areas

Most population growth over the coming decades will be in cities, and mostly concentrated in Asia. Nearly half of urban population growth between 2011 and 2015 will occur in cities of fewer than half a million people, and much of this growth is in unplanned, informal settlements with poor services.

With more young people moving to cities, there will be fewer working in agriculture, particularly youth.

With more young people moving to cities, there will be fewer working in agriculture, particularly youth. The average age for farmers in the US is about 55. In Japan it is 66. In Nigeria and Kenya 55-60, while in Thailand, a youthful 42 years. Essentially young generations are becoming net food consumers rather than producers.

There is also the issue of land. The lands on which many cities have been built are particularly fertile, and there is continual encroachment onto peri-urban land by development of housing, infrastructure and industry. The loss of precious farmland in and around cities has already had an impact on food access, price, and quality in many places.

Trend Two: Feed and Fuel Demand

The second trend is the changes in food and animal feed demand. In order to meet 2030 food, feed and fuel demand, on present trends, it would require 175 to 220 million hectares of additional cropland, to say nothing of additional inputs of water and nutrients.

We’re also seeing significant shifts in dietary demands, particularly among urban dwellers, for more protein and nutrient-rich foods. The increase is most rapid and significant for those whose income moves from about $2 to $10 per day. While this increase is very good news for these populations, and for farmers who sell them their produce, the attendant price rise in food caused by this increase in demand will be felt negatively by those still near or below $2 per day.

Trend Three: Climate Change

The third trend that will shape the future of food security in cities is climate change, which is likely to impact productive agricultural capacity significantly throughout this century. The estimated impacts of climate change alone on food production are particularly striking in certain latitudes where both heat increases and changes in normal rainfall patterns will cause drought, and flooding, and affect agricultural yields.

Heat increases and changes in normal rainfall patterns will cause drought, and flooding, and affect agricultural yields.

As recent years have shown us, critical shocks to the food system are severe and frequent, whether they are in the form of weather events, global food price spikes like those we saw in 2007-2008, or the eruption of regional conflict. This landscape and context presents new challenges, both for impoverished urban dwellers, and for farmers – and for the ecological systems and land that will need to support their income, consumption and dietary needs.

The Concept of Resilience

Food security is about more than keeping hunger at bay. In our 21st century world, we believe it’s about resilient societies.

What do we mean by resilience? Simply put, resilience is a capacity that enables people, places and systems to survive, adapt, and thrive.

We have been working since 2007 on integrating resilience into our work, and have  identified several core characteristics that resilient systems share and demonstrate, both in good times and in times of stress and shocks:

  1. Spare capacity and redundancy, which ensures that there is a back-up or alternative available when a vital component of a system fails.
  2. Flexibility and the ability to change, evolve, and adapt in the face of disaster, shock or chronic stress.
  3. Limited safe failure – the ability to cope with serious disruptions but still retain some functionality.
  4. Rapid rebound – the capacity to re-establish function, re-organize, and avoid long-term disruptions.
  5. Constant learning, with robust feedback loops that sense, provide foresight, and facilitate new solutions as conditions change.

With these principles in mind, we begin to see clear links between food security and the resilience of urban households, communities, and city-wide systems. What is needed is a combination of better public policies and different market mechanisms.

There are innovations on the horizon that can be applied and scaled up to increase agricultural production including micro-irrigation, developing more drought- and flood-resistant strains of staples and other food crops, creating 21st-century alternatives to fossil fuel-based fertilizer, and use of more sustainable practices in the production of meat and fish.

But to have a positive impact on poor city and rural communities alike, the cost of these innovations must be borne by government or businesses so they are affordable.

And the fruits of the innovations have to move rapidly from research lab to farm to city markets.

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