Agropolis: the role of urban agriculture in addressing food insecurity in developing cities.

Author:Koscica, Milica
Position:Andrew Wellington Cordier Essay - Essay

Over fifty percent of the world's population is urbanized--living in cities--and cities almost entirely depend on imported food to meet daily needs. Different factors such as population growth, urbanization, and increasing global demand for food are intensifying; urban agriculture is an important tool for enhancing food security in response to the food-related restraints faced by city dwellers. Through a historical retrospective of urban agriculture to an analysis of current practices and policies, this article explores urban agriculture's potential ability to manage the lack of land and water in cities through the development of innovative growing techniques that optimize the access, quantity, and quality of food for millions of people in developing cities around the globe.


As population growth, swelling food demand, and rising rates of urban poverty combine to threaten the availability of food to the urban poor, addressing food insecurity--the inability to consistently access quality food--has become increasingly important. For the first time in the history of civilization, most people now live in cities, which almost entirely depend on imported food to meet daily needs. Yet, as world population continues to grow, reaching a projected 9.6 billion people within the next thirty-five years, global food demand is similarly projected to increase between 70 and 100 percent, depending on future per capita income. (1) Current available cropland and production levels will be unable to keep pace. Meeting future demand would require either clearing an additional landmass the size of Brazil to create land on which to farm, or more extensive use of chemical fertilizers, both of which are unsustainable and environmentally harmful. (2)

As the current and unprecedented trend of rural-to-urban migration continues, the level of world urban dwellers is expected to reach 70 percent by 2050. (3) Research also indicates that the "poor have been urbanizing even more rapidly than the population as a whole." (4) Noting that most urban population growth is expected to occur in developing cities, the global food price crises of 2008 and 2011 underscored the extent of vulnerability and food insecurity of the poor in these areas.

In response to these trends, a debate regarding the role of urban agriculture in addressing availability and access to quality food for the urban poor has emerged. Many believe that urban agriculture struggles to produce enough food due to fierce competition for scarce urban resources such as land and water. Additionally, concerns have been raised regarding the health risks associated with urban agricultural runoff and possible soil contamination. Some consider the term urban agriculture as inherently contradictory, but on the other hand, one could argue that urban agriculture not only overcomes these constraints, but also addresses them in an innovative and integrative manner to optimize access, quantity, and quality of food for the urban poor. This paper first describes urban agriculture and its scale in the developing world regions. It then analyzes urban agricultures's main constraints--land, water, and health risks--to reveal how these constraints are transformed into opportunities that tackle food insecurity issues. Finally, the paper concludes with a look toward future possibilities and suggestions for further research.


Although urban agriculture has only recently garnered conceptual attention in international development debates, its practice is not a recent phenomenon. Cities in the Classic Maya civilization and the Byzantine Empire incorporated various forms of urban farming to address food security by building resilience against shocks and sudden interruptions in supply lines. (5) During the First and Second World Wars, countries such as the United States, England, and Canada encouraged city dwellers to plant "victory gardens" to support the war effort. (6) In 1942, more than 5.5 million gardeners produced an estimated nine to ten million pounds of fruits and vegetables in the United States alone. (7) Instead of painting a portrait of agriculture as innately contrary to urbanity, these historical examples--both ancient and contemporary--suggest that the practice has often been integrated into city life, debunking modernist descriptions of urban agriculture as oxymoronic. (8)

During the last decade, information showing the magnitude of urban agriculture confirms its global significance. Most recent figures estimate that approximately 800 million people around the world actively engage in the practice, and that urban agriculture accounts for an average of 15 to 20 percent of the world's food production. (9) The rate of participation in developing countries varies considerably, from 10 percent in Indonesia to nearly 70 percent in Vietnam and Nicaragua. (10) A survey sample of developing countries finds that in eleven out of fifteen countries, 30 percent of urban households participate in urban agriculture, and in eight out of fifteen countries the rate increases to 50 percent when only the low-income households are considered. (11) The large scale of existing urban agriculture demonstrates its potential to have a significant positive impact on the larger urban food system.

Although the practice of growing food in developing cities is different from region to region, certain similarities nonetheless exist. First, studies find that urban producers are predominately low-income men and women who grow...

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