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The Challenge of Feeding the Cities

The Challenge of Feeding the Cities

 The Challenge of Feeding the Cities

“The task of feeding the world’s cities adequately constitutes an increasingly pressing challenge, requiring the coordinated interaction of food producers, transporters, market operators and a myriad of retail sellers.”​—JACQUES DIOUF, DIRECTOR GENERAL OF THE FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS (FAO).

FOOD distribution experts go so far as to say that urban food security could well become “the greatest humanitarian problem” of the 21st century.

Food security is defined as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active healthy life.” Right now, the food available worldwide would be sufficient to meet the needs of earth’s population​—if it were distributed according to need. But as it is, some 840 million people go to bed undernourished every night. Many of them live in cities. Consider a few facets of the problem.

Megacities With a Voracious Appetite

As cities grow, the surrounding fields once dedicated to agricultural production are progressively lost to new housing, industry, and roads. Consequently, croplands are being pushed farther away from the cities they feed. Often, little or no food is grown within the cities, and meat arrives from distant rural areas. In many developing countries, the roads along which produce is transported from farms to cities are inadequate. This means longer transportation times, greater wastage and, in the end, higher prices to consumers, many of whom are very poor.

 Some cities in the developing world are already big and are destined to become even bigger. By 2015, Mumbai (formerly called Bombay) is expected to have 22.6 million inhabitants, Delhi 20.9 million, Mexico City 20.6 million, and São Paulo 20 million. It is estimated that a city of ten million people​—such as Manila or Rio de Janeiro—​has to import as much as 6,000 tons of food per day.

That is no simple feat, and it is not getting any easier, especially in areas that are experiencing rapid growth. Lahore, Pakistan, for example, not only has a high birth rate (2.8 percent) but also has what is defined as an “alarmingly” high rate of migration from rural areas. Many developing nations are seeing millions of new inhabitants flow into already overcrowded cities in search of better living conditions, jobs, goods, and services. Because of such migration, the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh, is expected to grow by one million or more per year for the foreseeable future. According to projections, by 2025 the population of China, now two-thirds rural, will become predominantly urban. By the same time, 600 million people are expected to be living in the cities of India.

The migration of people to cities is changing the overall character of many parts of the world. In West Africa, for example, only 14 percent of the population lived in urban areas in 1960. By 1997 the urban population  was 40 percent, and by 2020, it is believed, the figure will rise to 63 percent. In the horn of Africa, urban populations are expected to double within a decade. And it is predicted that 90 percent of total population growth in developing countries in the near future will take place in towns and cities.

Stepping up the flow of food into urban areas to feed all these hungry mouths is a mammoth task. It requires the synchronized efforts of thousands of farmers, packers, truckers, traders, and handlers, as well as the use of thousands of vehicles. Yet, in some places the increased demand for food from urban centers is outstripping the capacity of surrounding areas to provide it. Moreover, in most cities in the developing world, services such as transportation and structures such as storage buildings, markets, and slaughterhouses are already overextended.

Widespread Poverty

The challenge of feeding growing populations is further complicated where there is widespread poverty. Many large cities in the developing world, such as Dhaka, Freetown, Guatemala City, Lagos, and La Paz, already face poverty rates of 50 percent or more.

When discussing food supplies for such populations, analysts make the distinction between availability and accessibility. Food may be on sale in city markets​—that is, available—​but this is of little comfort to the urban poor if the price is beyond their reach. It has been noted that as the income of some city dwellers rises, they demand and consume a greater quantity and a wider variety of foodstuffs. The urban poor, on the other hand, have difficulty purchasing sufficient food to meet their needs and preferences. Such poor families may have to spend between 60 and 80 percent of their total income on food.

Costs could perhaps be lower if food was purchased in bulk; yet, that is impossible if people simply do not have enough ready money. Many households cannot even meet their minimum dietary requirements, and the inevitable result is malnutrition. In the cities of sub-Saharan Africa, to name just one area, malnutrition is said to be “a serious, widespread problem.”

Particularly at risk are new arrivals from rural areas who find it hard to adapt to the urban environment​—namely, single mothers, junior civil servants who are paid late because of government cash-flow problems, the disabled, the elderly, and the sick. Such at-risk groups often live in outlying neighborhoods lacking basic amenities​—electricity, piped water, sewers, roads, and solid-waste disposal—​where large numbers of people inhabit temporary or precarious dwellings. The millions who struggle to make ends meet under conditions like these are acutely vulnerable to any shortcomings in the food-supply system. Such ones often live far away from the nearest markets and have little choice but to pay high prices for inferior-quality foods. Their plight is sad indeed.

 Uncertain and Unhealthful Conditions

In many areas it is not unusual for rapid urban growth to take place haphazardly and illegally. The results are an unhealthful and insecure environment with high crime. “Frequently,” says Feeding the Cities, an FAO publication, “city administrators in the developing world find themselves struggling to cope with burgeoning populations in a physical environment that is really only adequate for a fraction of the inhabitants.”

In most of Africa, markets are often not planned but spontaneous. Traders begin selling their goods wherever there is demand. The markets that develop thus lack even the most basic facilities.

In Colombo, Sri Lanka, existing wholesale and retail markets are poorly located and severely congested. Truck drivers lament that it takes them hours to reach and to leave the central market. Areas for parking, loading, and unloading are inadequate.

Elsewhere, markets are poorly maintained and badly managed. Unhygienic conditions resulting from increasing amounts of organic and inorganic waste create health risks. “These problems,” says the mayor of one city in South Asia, “contribute to a progressive deterioration of the quality of life.”

 The seriousness of problems connected with hygiene and environmental issues are exemplified by the findings of a survey of animal products on sale in one city in Southeast Asia. There it is normal for meat to be “displayed on the bare ground in contact with dust and dirty water.” Salmonella was present in 40 percent of pork samples and 60 percent of beef samples, while 100 percent of beef samples contained E. coli. Contamination from heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, was also found.

As a response to inadequate, unreliable, or irregular access to food supplies, city dwellers, like many in Kano, Nigeria, attempt to cultivate any vacant land that might be available. Yet, most of these people have no formal rights to that land. They thus risk eviction and the destruction of the produce they toil to cultivate.

Olivio Argenti, an FAO urban food-security specialist, describes what he found when visiting an urban agricultural area in Mexico, close to a river into which sewage from a nearby village is discharged. Local farmers used that river to water their vegetables and its mud to prepare their seedbeds. “I asked the authorities if they were aware of the danger,” writes Argenti, “and they said that they were not in a position to do anything because they didn’t have the financial or technical means.” Such problems are seen repeatedly throughout the developing world.

Cities Struggling to Cope

The list of issues faced by rapidly growing cities seems endless. International organizations, planners, and administrators are doing what they can to resolve them. Their strategies include promoting rural food production and providing adequate access, as well as building new roads, markets, and slaughterhouses. They see the need to promote private investment in warehouse facilities, improve access to credit for farmers, traders, and transporters, and enforce appropriate trade  and hygiene regulations. Yet, analysts observe that despite all the efforts that have been made, many local authorities fail to recognize and respond appropriately to the issues involved. Even when they do, available resources are insufficient to address the problems.

The enormity of challenges facing cities, particularly in the developing world, has led to urgent warnings. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C., “urban populations will continue to grow, and these problems [hunger, malnutrition, and poverty] will only grow with them​—unless we take action now.” Regarding the future of cities in poorer countries, Janice Perlman, president of the Mega-Cities Project, an international network of organizations committed to finding solutions to urban problems, notes: “No precedent exists for feeding, sheltering, employing or transporting so many people in so dense an area, under such severe financial and environmental constraints. Cities are reaching the limits of their carrying capacity to support human life.”

There are, however, good reasons to believe that the problems of food supply and distribution will soon be solved.

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Almost all population growth expected worldwide in the next 30 years will be concentrated in cities.

It is expected that by 2007, more than half the world’s population will live in urban areas.

The number of people living in cities worldwide is projected to grow at an average of 1.8 percent annually; at this rate, urban populations will double in 38 years.

The number of cities with five million or more inhabitants is expected to rise from 46 in 2003 to 61 in 2015.

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Source: World Urbanization Prospects​—The 2003 Revision, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division

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“Urban political unrest and social instability are already well-documented throughout the world whenever food prices have suffered sharp increases.”​—Jacques Diouf, director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

In 1999, hurricanes Georges and Mitch hit the Caribbean area and Central America, causing widespread destruction, disruption to normal activities, and food shortages.

Protests against high fuel prices in Ecuador in 1999 and in Britain in 2000 caused serious disruptions to food supply.

Among the miseries brought by war are food shortages.

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CONSUELO and her 13 children live in a squatter village (shown above) on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. Three of her children have tuberculosis. “We used to live in the mountains,” she states, “but one night hundreds from our village moved to the city. We thought, ‘in Lima, our children will get an education and wear shoes. Life will be better for them.’” So the villagers made straw mats, and one night they all moved to the city and put up straw houses. In the morning, there were too many squatters for the authorities to evict.

Consuelo’s house has a big hole in the roof and a mud floor. “I am raising these chickens to sell to rich people,” she says, referring to the animals running around her home. “I wanted money for shoes for my daughter. But now I must use it to pay for the hospital and medicine.”

The only food Consuelo has are a few onions. Work is hard to find, and she does not have enough money even to buy water regularly. There is no running water in her flimsy home and no toilet. “We use this pot. Then at night I send the children to dump it somewhere,” she explains. “It is what we have to do.”

Consuelo receives no support from her husband, whom she rarely sees. She is only in her 30’s but looks much older. “Her small dark eyes stare blankly from her puffy face,” says a writer who interviewed her. “They are without hope.”

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Source: In Context

AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo

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ANY who are considering the possibility of moving to a city would do well to consider a number of factors. “One of the main attractions is the expectation of an improved life compared with the opportunities offered in rural areas,” says the UN Food and Agriculture Organization publication Feeding the Cities. However, “the improvement may not come immediately, perhaps not even for a generation or more.”

The fact is, many who move from rural areas to the city find themselves facing homelessness, unemployment, and worse poverty than before, all in an unfamiliar environment. So if you are considering such a step, are you sure that it would permit you to support your family? Work in the cities, if there is any available, is often low paying. Might the pressures of having to work long hours just to get by make you or your family neglect activities that you consider important?​—Matthew 28:19, 20; Hebrews 10:24, 25.

Some parents have chosen to make such a move while leaving their families at home. Is this wise? Christian parents have an obligation to provide for their families materially, but what would separation mean for the family emotionally and spiritually? (1 Timothy 5:8) Would fathers effectively be able to go on bringing up their children “in the discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah?” (Ephesians 6:4) Could separation of husband and wife expose them to moral temptations?​—1 Corinthians 7:5.

Any move is, of course, a personal decision. Before making such a decision, Christians should weigh all the factors involved and prayerfully seek Jehovah’s direction.​—Luke 14:28.

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Cities struggle with unsanitary conditions and heavy traffic





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In many poor urban families, even the children must work

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India: © Mark Henley/Panos Pictures; Niger: © Olivio Argenti; Mexico: © Aubrey Wade/Panos Pictures; Bangladesh: © Heldur Netocny/ Panos Pictures; bottom photo: © Jean-Leo Dugast/Panos Pictures