This story originally appeared in our May 19th, 2011 e-magazine. Click here to subscribe.

With bursting populations and high food prices, the food security of urban dwellers is approaching a crossroads. Beyond Profit looks at two different solutions addressing the future of food.

As developing countries enter periods of high growth – particularly China and India – they are increasingly faced with a dilemma: how to maintain high growth rates while keeping inflation low? Indeed, rising food prices is one of the most serious issues facing Indian politicians and policymakers, especially given the large number of poor.

Globally, food prices have nearly doubled between 2004 and 2008, and have remained high since. The most significant price increase was in the price of cereals – the price of wheat doubled in the 2005-2008 period, while the price of rice and maize tripled in that period. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) index, real global food prices increased to 232 points in April 2011 from 170 points in April 2010.

In a March 2011 report by the World Bank titled Food Price Increases in South Asia: National Responses and Regional Dimensions, the food inflation of recent years is attributed to demand pressure from biofuel production; speculative practices in agricultural commodity futures markets; and policy failures.

The track record of food price inflation in South Asia varies. In 2007-2008, India experienced relatively moderate inflation at 7% while countries like Bangladesh and Nepal experienced high inflation at 15%. Until 2010, with the exception of India, food price inflation was higher than non-food price inflation throughout South Asia. However in 2010, even in India, elevated food prices became a major cause of general inflation.

Food Insecurity

For the average household in South Asia, food expenses account for more than 50% of its total spending. Households living close to the poverty line – defined as one with a daily per capita income of INR 20 (~$0.44) – may find themselves crossing that line.  For such families, naturally, food security is a matter of life and death.

The question of food security becomes even more critical in urban areas in the developing world. In urban areas, food insecurity can largely be traced to increasing population density, migration from rural areas, the proliferation of slums and food inflation.  By 2020, 75% of the world’s urban dwellers will be in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and nearly 50% of the poor in these regions will be concentrated in cities and towns. High food prices mean that poorer populations will have even more restricted access to proper nutrition. Already, malnutrition is a significant problem in urban slums: around 730,000 children under the age of four live in Mumbai’s slums, and it is estimated that 40-60% of these children are malnourished.

Is Urban Agriculture A Solution?

“As global populations shift toward urban centers, we need to rethink how we live in cities,” says Catie Peters of the Mumbai-based Fresh & Local, a local urban agriculture initiative. “In most countries, food has followed other industries in its large-scale production.”

However, alternative methods of addressing food scarcity issues, such as urban agriculture, are emerging. “Urban agriculture eliminates the monetary and ecological costs of transportation,” says Peters.

“It is estimated that half the produce that comes into Mumbai is lost in transit,” she says. “Urban agriculture in Mumbai eliminates this wastage.  Furthermore, when people grow food where they live, they have ready access to produce, and they can harvest when it is ripest and most nutritious.  Growing smaller quantities of food in diverse locations assures that food is more available.”

Urban agriculture is defined in a 1996 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report as, “[An] industry that produces, processes and markets food and fuel, largely in response to the daily demand of consumers within a town, city, or metropolis, on land and water dispersed throughout the urban and peri-urban area, applying intensive production methods, using and reusing natural resources and urban wastes to yield a diversity of crops and livestock.”

Globally, urban agriculture is gaining recognition from governments, as well as international organizations like the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), United Nations Center for Human Settlements (UNCHS), the FAO, and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Today, about 200 million people worldwide are associated with urban agriculture.

While there are no current, reliable statistics about urban agriculture in India, the Resource Centers for Urban Agriculture and Food Security (RUAF) plans to make a national assessment of the practice.

“I am hoping that the national scheme is introduced and that our project has an impact on food prices,” said Dr. Priyanie Amerasinghe, Regional Coordinator of the From Seed to Table (FSTT) project at RUAF.

The FSTT project facilitates the development of sustainable urban farming systems and works in 21 partner cities around the world. The project is set to end in India in June 2011, after when the Dhan Foundation will take over the project from RUAF. FSTT attempts to address key constraints to urban agriculture such as low degree of support services, poor organization among urban farmers and low productivity and profitability, despite high market demand and increasing market prices.

An important component of FSTT is advocacy. The RUAF project team worked closely with the Department of Agriculture and Horticulture, and with municipal councils at the town level. They have also garnered interest from other stakeholders, such as the Department of Environment.

In states like Kerala and Maharashtra, which are mostly urban and peri-urban, promotion of urban agriculture is already included in state policies. In other states, advocacy is needed to make urban agriculture part of policy as more and more areas within states transition from rural to peri-urban areas.

Additionally, urban agriculture is not a transplant of rural farming, nor is it the preserve of rural migrants to cities. A majority of people involved in urban agriculture are urban poor who are not recent immigrants. Their local residency enables them to access land, water and other resources. Often these people may pursue other jobs simultaneously, and it is not uncommon to find government employees or schoolteachers engaged in urban farming.

Typically, most urban farmers are women who find it easier to combine farming, food processing or marketing farm produce with their household tasks. The men, who often travel for their jobs, find it difficult to combine agricultural tasks with their other activities.

Question of Sustainability

Sustainability, however, remains a challenge for urban agriculture, as does its scalability.

“People throw around the word ‘sustainable’ a lot in our field,” says Peters. “Urban agriculture is absolutely sustainable in the sense that it does not require the inputs of fossil fuels or chemical fertilizers.”

But Peters goes on to acknowledge the constraints of the model. “It is unlikely that urban agriculture can ‘sustain’ an entire city population like Mumbai’s. We do the majority of our urban gardening on rooftops and terraces. Other cities that have more land mass may be able to pull it off.  Ninety percent of Havana’s fresh produce comes from local urban farms and gardens, for example.”

Land usage and availability in cities like Mumbai is clearly an issue and presents significant challenges to scalability. It is not just a question of space, but that land prices are exorbitant, a prohibitive barrier for the urban poor. Fresh & Local’s solution is not to grow in the ground; the solution is in the rooftops. Peters says: “Mumbai is a city of seven islands.  The land mass is not great.  Our innovation is that we make use of underutilized rooftops and terraces to do our urban gardening.”

Public Distribution Systems

Initiatives like the ones by Fresh & Local and RUAF also supplement existing government programs to deal with food security. The government of India has three main programs that address food insecurity and malnutrition, one of which is the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS).

The TPDS aims to provide basic food grains to the poor at subsidized rates through a national network of so-called ‘ration stores’. The Indian government initially had a public distribution system where by all ration card-holding citizens could access these stores.; this was subsequently modified to the present-day TPDS that created bands or categories such as Above Poverty Line (APL) and BPL, with differently priced food grains.

The TPDS program, however, has through the years faced significant criticism for poor quality, delivery gaps and leaks in the system. Meanwhile, The Right to Food Campaign, an informal network of individuals and organizations, recently questioned the Indian government’s commitment towards ensuring food security for the poor. The campaign demanded a comprehensive National Food Security Act. It calls for the removal of the artificial divide between APL and the BPL populations since it excludes more than 50% of deserving people via faulty targeting. The campaign also demands a universal public distribution system. The Indian government is still discussing the shape of the proposed National Food Security Act.

The implementation of a more effective universal public distribution system is worth revisiting now with India’s new unique identification (UID) scheme, launched in September 2010. Essentially, the UID is a national identity card where each Indian citizen is assigned a unique number. The UID will also include each assignee’s biometric data. With access to more detailed population data, state governments should, in theory, be able to improve their public distribution systems to meet the needs of its vulnerable people.

The Future

However, a growing cross-section of urban farmers giving up land for other uses. Dr. Amerasinghe explains, “These are market forces. But I have hope that if we help farmers earn more money, think long-term and innovate to introduce to them different kinds of farming – such as covered farming – that suit the changed circumstances, they may not feel the need to sell their land.”

“People in Mumbai have been extremely receptive to the urban gardening movement,” says Peters. “We want to work with a cross-section of Mumbai residents.  We want every window grate to be growing something edible.  We want people to think of growing food before they think of growing ornamental plants.  We want to look out and see green, edible landscapes.” To date, Fresh & Local is working towards that goal steadily: in less than a year, it has held numerous workshops at the Bombay Hub for more than 180 people interested in urban agriculture and gardening.

While government programs provide aid to people in need, solutions like urban agriculture empower people to govern their own food security. The best solution, perhaps, lies somewhere in the middle.

Photo credits: Flickr user kerim; Flicker user edibleoffice; Zzvet /Shutterstock.com

Usha Ganesh, a consultant with Beyond Profit publisher Intellecap, contributed to this story.

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1 Comment »

  1. Feeding the Starving World « We*Meat*Again Said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 8:53 pm

    [...] are more and many ideas there, all kinds of models for urban farming that are both scalable and sustainable. But the free market doesn’t always favor these logical, [...]

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