Urban populations are steadily increasing. What are the implications
for their food security and safety?
Urbanization is likely to eat up the productive land, pushing
food production further and further away. This increases the cost
of all activities associated with producing food and bringing
it to cities, calling for massive investments. The consequences
are all the more critical where infrastructure and services such
as transport, storage, slaughterhouses and markets are already
overstretched, which is the situation in most cities in developing
countries. If the population is growing 9 or 10 percent a year,
as is the case in some African cities, it will double in less
than a decade. In Latin America, cities are growing more slowly,
but the urban population is already 75% and still increasing.
How does urban food production help improve food security in
Urban agriculture does contribute to feeding urban populations.
About 200 million urban farmers throughout the world supply food
to 700 million people. However, there are a lot of risks associated
with urban food production, especially the risk of contamination.
I recently visited an urban agricultural area in Mexico near a
river into which all the sewage goes from the nearby village.
They use the mud to prepare seed beds and the water to water the
vegetables. I asked the authorities if they were aware of the
danger, and they said that they were not in a position to do anything
because they didnt have the financial or technical means.
Unfortunately, the health risk has paved the ground for authorities
to try to prevent urban food production rather than find solutions
to the contamination. The point is to not take an anti-production
approach, but to try to facilitate safe food production. It is
a very important source of food, such as vegetables, fruits and
meat, which are usually absent from the diets of low-income families.
One of the keys to enhancing urban food security and safety
is the improvement of the food supply and distribution chain.
How does it work?
The food supply and distribution chain is the set of activities
in rural, peri-urban and urban areas that provide urban households
with a variety of food products. The chain begins with production
of food and includes food assembly, packaging, transport, storage,
processing, buying and selling both wholesale and retail,
as well as street vending. The efficiency of the chain is certainly
important, as is its capacity to provide stable supplies of good-quality
and safe food. However, it is not sufficient to ensure food security.
If you dont have money, youre out of the system. Or
if your consumption habits are wrong, an efficient chain isnt
going to resolve that.
What role do local governments play in creating the right conditions
for feeding their cities?
In most developing countries, local governments and authorities
are responsible for establishing regulations for food hygiene
and trade. They build and manage the markets and are responsible
for road construction, which is crucial to get food to markets.
Expanding cities need more and more infrastructure, transport
Unfortunately, food supply and distribution aspects are often
taken into consideration in urban planning and management decisions
without the necessary understanding of the complex interrelation
of activities. As a result, existing markets are not maintained,
new markets remain underutilized and conflicts often occur between
food producers, traders and street vendors.
Local authorities are being given more and more responsibilities
each day because of decentralization programmes, but often without
the necessary financial, human and technical resources. We must
remember that there are cities whose municipal authorities have
a budget of one dollar per year per inhabitant. With a budget
like that, you have to look to the private sector. With competent
human resources, local authorities can improve the soundness and
sustainability of their intervention programmes and create favourable
conditions for higher private investment.
What is the role of national or central governments?
What happens in a city is also a result of the national context.
For example, what a central government does to combat inflation
will also determine the cost of food at the local level. Whether
or not there is an adequate supply of affordable and safe food
in a city also depends on how much the central government invests
in agricultural production and development in rural areas. These
two layers of government intervention are sometimes conflicting,
and often there is not enough coordination between them.
How does FAO contribute to urban food security and safety?
Traditionally FAO has assisted central governments in enhancing
food security, mostly in rural areas, by improving production
and marketing systems, identifying vulnerable groups, forecasting
production levels and creating early warning systems to assess
food shortages. For a long time, FAO has also been involved in
food safety for example, with assistance to reduce food
contamination both at production level, with advice on the appropriate
use of fertilizers, pesticides and so forth, and at the street
level, with advice on how to assure proper hygiene when handling
prepared meals or snacks that are sold on the streets.
During the last few years, FAO has also been concentrating on
the role of local authorities, who have traditionally been forgotten
partners but who have a tremendous impact on food security at
local level. FAO is now able to provide much-needed technical
assistance to local governments so that they can perform better
today and be prepared for tomorrow.