Meeting Food Demands in Urban Areas

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

Our planet is swiftly urbanizing. Today, for the first time in history, more than half of earth’s people live in cities, but by 2050, the percentage of urban dwellers is expected to jump to 70 percent.

To explore the unique food--related challenges posed by population shifts taking place all around the world, the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Urban Research (Penn IUR) recently hosted an important and fascinating conference, Feeding Cities: Food Security in a Rapidly-Urbanizing World.

In South Asia, for example, agriculture systems must rapidly adapt to ensure that adequate, affordable, and sustainable food is available for urban consumers. This provides attractive incentives to producers and agribusinesses to expand and modernize their operations.

However, if trends toward increased urban consumption of more processed and convenient foods continue, warned the University of North Carolina’s Barry Popkin in a keynote speech, greater urbanization could lead to poorer nutrition and health outcomes. Other speakers emphasized that recognizing the problem is an essential step toward positive action for greater food security and better nutrition.

Feeding Cities 2013 got off to an energetic start with the presentation of three awards. One of the awardees, Ridwan Kamil, engaged the audience with a lively photo-montage illustrating grassroots efforts to stimulate vegetable production in Indonesia’s urban slums. Monthly harvests of healthy vegetables, he said, have become a reason for communities in more than 20 cities to celebrate, while, at the same time, participants learn about nutrition and healthy eating. Effective use of social media – lots of photographs and blogging! -- connects neighborhood leaders with needed how-to information as they replicate the approach in a growing number of Indonesian cities.

A wide and diverse group of more than 70 speakers shared their own experiences and perspectives on the challenges of achieving urban food security throughout the conference. Architects, city managers, agricultural specialists, environmentalists, economists, public health professionals, development experts, and community organizers laid out an array of ideas for tackling the challenge. Based on the Q&A’s and coffee break buzz, presentations generated substantial excitement among the many students who were searching for ways to integrate ideas with action.

I had the pleasure of speaking at a plenary panel on “Urbanization, Diets, and Demand.” UPenn’s Institute for Urban Research has set up a Feeding Cities 2013 website where all the proceedings of the conference are now available for viewing and sharing.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Shiriki Kumanyika, who serves as a member of AGree’s Advisory Committee, has been a member of the Penn IUR Internal Executive Committee since its inception and contributed greatly to an important conference that I and many others hope will become an annual event.

Emmy Simmons is a Co-Chair of AGree and formerly served as the Assistant Administrator for Economic Growth, Agriculture, and Trade at the U.S. Agency for International Development.