Growing food in the cities: Successes and new opportunities

Towns and cities in the world’s developing countries are growing on an unprecedented scale. In 1960, the global urban population was 34% of the total; by 2014 54% of the total and growing. By 2050, the proportion living in urban areas is expected to reach 66% (UNDESA). Sub-Saharan Africa’s annual urban growth rate is 3.6%, almost double the world average. The information in this document was compiled as background reading material for the 50th Brussels Development Briefing on Growing food in the cities: Successes and new opportunities.

Urban and peri-urban agriculture has wide benefits. Cities in developing countries are often unable to create sufficient employment opportunities. Investment in urban agriculture could help to reduce urban poverty and malnutrition, and contribute to local economic development and greening of urban spaces.

Urban and peri-urban agriculture offers opportunities for productive employment in a sector with low barriers to entry. Intensive horticultural and livestock production employs workers in the production of high value-added products that should yield reasonable incomes and returns. Commercial peri-urban greenhouse production and livestock rearing are fast-growing sub-sectors. Urban and peri-urban agriculture also has an important multiplier effect, stimulating job creation in many other sectors.

The results of the study by Prain G. and Dubbeling M. (2011) show that the advantage of agriculture in combining with other occupations also enables producers to benefit from more diversified income sources reducing vulnerability and enhancing the economic resilience of low income households, even if producers do not obviously benefit from overall higher incomes.

Among the most pressing challenges faced by urban and peri-urban producers is urban expansion itself, which has already led to considerable conversion and disappearance of peri-urban cropland. Recent projections show that, by 2030, urban expansion will result in a 1.8%–2.4% loss of global croplands, albeit with substantial regional differences. About 80% of global cropland loss from urban expansions projected to take place in Asia and Africa (especially in China, Nigeria, and Egypt).41 In both Asia and Africa, much of the cropland that will be lost is more than twice as productive as national averages. By 2030, projections also show a 3%-4% decrease in agricultural production, 80% of which will be in Africa and Asia. Managing the expanding boundaries of cities into peri-urban areas should therefore be given greater policy attention in some areas, especially when they could provide opportunities for intensive agriculture that would contribute high-nutrient-quality (fresh, perishable) foods to adjacent urban markets.

There are several ways urban local governments can facilitate local food production, which is compatible with surrounding uses. Municipalities around the world are increasingly incorporating land use for urban and peri-urban agriculture in their city planning. However, the contribution of urban food production to total food consumption remains very small. Finding ways to scale up production and productivity represents both a challenge and an opportunity in the decades ahead.

Ideally, governments and policies should identify their priority goals when promoting urban agriculture. For example, a local government concerned about growing food insecurity or malnutrition among the urban poor in intra-urban areas may specifically support forms of backyard gardening, forms of low space gardening (as practised by many households in Kibera, Nairobi) or promote the production of crops and livestock that are nutritionally and culturally important. Another city – mainly interested to boost local economic development and employment creation – may focus on the development of small-scale commercial urban agriculture in larger open spaces in the intra-urban, peri-urban in transition or peri- urban areas, input-supply, processing or marketing enterprises and seek to stimulate well performing subsistence farmers to move into the market sector.

Priorities for policymakers include:

  • Developing land use policies to enable urban and peri-urban agriculture to be recognised as an important use of land and viable economic activity, and promoting its integration into national and local agricultural development strategies, food and nutrition programmes and urban planning.
  • Ensuring that water supplies used for agricultural production are not contaminated by urban run-off or poorly managed sanitation systems.
  • Identifying ways to incorporate private organisations in strategic planning and in achieving common goals.

Many urban agriculture policies still mainly focus on urban and peri-urban food production for reasons of food security, while commercial urban agriculture, agro-processing and value addition activities are often not well addressed (Dubbeling and Pasquini 2010). Though general agricultural policies and plans do focus on articulating production with (urban) markets, these aspects are dealt with in a general way and do not differentiate different types of production systems, such as rural, peri-urban and intra-urban. They therefore easily underestimate the contribution of urban and peri-urban production to income and employment generation.

Urban policies need to acknowledge the role of urban and peri-urban agriculture in urban development, ensure urban food supply and strengthen livelihoods of poor urban producers. This includes removing barriers and providing incentives for urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) as well as improving natural resource management in urban and peri-urban areas.

In order to be sustainable and attract youth, the sector needs further enterprise development and entrepreneurial skills development, improved processing and marketing capacity, access to finance, identification of lucrative markets (i.e. organic…).

There is a need for capacity building of producers’ organisations in order to professionalise the sector as well as facilitating access to land for urban production. Even when the urban farmers are not the owners of the land, they should feel encouraged through medium- to long-term investment strategies as contributors of multifunctional green infrastructure of the cities.

Food safety issues and traceability are key for all the actors of the chain and the end consumers. Increased recognition of the role that food can/does play in responding to various urban sustainability concerns provides new market and engagement opportunities for the private sector. Private sector players can fulfil an important role in speeding up and implementing scalable urban food system innovations. Because of their large consumer markets, more direct consumer relations, and close collaboration between various players in the food supply chain, city regions offer traditional and new private sector players some unique opportunities.

The greatest impact is achieved when a food system approach is advocated and support is provided to the entire network of city region producers, wholesalers, processors, caterers and shopkeepers. Integration with other sectors (logistics, recycling, urban planning) and various innovations in food production and marketing will drive the biggest change.

  • To feed growing cities in a sustainable way, both public and private actors need to speed up design and implementation of innovative food system strategies at a city region scale.
  • Business opportunities exist in traditional food services (production, processing, retail), and increasingly also in resource recycling, development of new products and services, and technological innovations. This generates new opportunities for urban- and rural-based water, energy and other nonfood sectors.
  • Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) seem to have the highest potential for supplying city region markets and providing or sourcing city region products, while at the same time ensuring local job creation and social inclusion.
  • Local small-scale farmers and SMEs need to be supported in adopting specific business strategies to be competitive, through product aggregation, sharing of infrastructure and resources, pooling of consumer demand, and/or integration of their products into mainstream distribution channels.
  • Interventions and policy instruments by governments and the larger and international private sector can vary from direct technical and financial support to creating favourable business environments in the city region. Local/regional sourcing and procurement possess potential for support. These interventions should address environmental and social sustainability criteria.

Mobilising public and private sector investment

Support mechanisms include legal and regulatory instruments, setting of procurement standards and targets, zoning and agricultural land protection. They also include financial instruments (public or public-private investment funds, taxes, subsidies). Communication and education, direct implementation or support to urban food systems projects (like urban farmer markets) and provision of business support services (granting access to land, markets, infrastructure; offering training and advice) are complementary strategies delivered by many governments and larger (inter)national private sector.

Governments and the larger private sector can also generate large buyer demand for city region products through their own public procurement. Further business support would need to evolve around the setting up and improving of separate or shared processing, storage centres or food hubs, ICT services, commercial and logistics training.

Up-to-date information on food supply sources, retail market and consumption trends is necessary. Businesses also need better knowledge of the availability of local products, the businesses that can help them with sourcing and support for these practices. Consumer awareness and education are also needed on the benefits of city region food supply. Catering certification schemes are proven mechanisms for driving systemic change. In order to enhance impact in various domains, it is important that – beyond provenance criteria – emphasis is given to aspects of health, social justice and inclusion, regional and youth employment and environmental sustainability.

In policy terms, there has been a call for greater recognition to be given to urban agriculture. In June 2013, the COST Action project issued the Barcelona Declaration71 on Urban Agriculture and the CAP. This made the point that urban agriculture had been largely neglected in Europe’s policies and especially in the CAP. It had neither been institutionalised within the EU administration level nor within the Member States. As a consequence, the declaration asked for a ‘stronger consideration of urban agriculture’ and its recognition as a ‘driving force for innovation…’. Looking to the future, it remains to be seen how the current modernisation and simplification of the CAP and the ongoing discussions on the future of cohesion policy post- 2020 will impact on future prospects for urban agriculture in Europe. A key challenge for urban agriculture is how to achieve the necessary integration across all EU policy areas.

Monitoring of interventions

It would be important to monitor the impacts of the various proposed policy measures once they are put in place. The goals set for urban agriculture development in the various policy documents and plans should be regularly monitored to see if targets are achieved and to adjust intervention strategies were necessary.