FAO's Programme for Urban and Peri-urban Horticulture
Greener cities
FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Food and nutrition security

Growing fruit and vegetables in and around cities increases the supply of fresh, nutritious produce and improves the urban poor's economic access to food

People have food security when they are able to grow enough food, or buy enough food, to meet their daily needs for an active, healthy life. In many of the 21st century's developing cities, all of those conditions of food security are threatened.

Poor urban households spend from 60 to 80 percent of their income on food. That makes them highly vulnerable when food prices rise or their incomes fall. FAO estimates that in the wake of global food price inflation in 2007/2008, and the subsequent economic recession, the number of chronically hungry in the world has risen by at least 100 million to more than one billion people. The greatest increase has been among the urban poor, women and children.

Access to nutritious food is a key dimension of food security. In Africa and Asia, urban households spend up to 50 percent of their food budgets on cheap "convenience" foods often deficient in the vitamins and minerals essential for health. One study found that vitamin A deficiency, a cause of blindness, was more severe among Dhaka slum dwellers than among even the rural poor.

Fruit and vegetables are the richest natural sources of micronutrients. But in developing countries, daily fruit and vegetable consumption is just 20-50 percent of FAO/World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations. Urban meals rich in low-cost fats and sugars are also responsible for rising levels of obesity and overweight. In India, diet-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes, are a growing health problem, and mainly in urban areas.

Urban and peri-urban horticulture helps developing cities meet all those challenges. First, it boosts the physical supply of fresh, nutritious produce, available year round. Second, it improves the urban poor's economic access to food when their household production of fruit and vegetables reduces their food bills, and when growers earn a living from sales.

Urban food security

Intensive horticulture production on urban peripheries makes sense. But as cities grow, valuable agricultural land is lost to housing, industry and infrastructure (Accra eats up an estimated 2 600 hectares of farm land every year). Result: production of fresh food is being pushed further into rural areas. The cost of transport, packing and refrigeration, the poor state of rural roads, and heavy losses in transit add to the scarcity and cost of fruit and vegetables in urban markets.

That is why China has integrated food production into urban development since the 1960s. Today, more than half of Beijing's vegetable supply comes from the city's own market gardens, and it costs less than produce trucked from more distant areas. Horticulture in and around Hanoi produces more than 150 000 tonnes of fruit and vegetables a year. In Cuba, which has promoted intensive UPH since the early 1990s, the sector accounts for 60 percent of horticultural production - and Cubans' per capita intake of fruit and vegetables exceeds the FAO/WHO recommended minimum.

As urbanization accelerates in sub-Saharan Africa, many countries are seeking to develop their commercial horticulture sectors to ensure urban food security. Often the first step is to legalize and protect long established small-scale market gardens that have sprung up without planning or permits.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, FAO advised on measures that regularized titles to 1 600 ha of garden areas operated by some 20 000 full-time growers in five cities. The project introduced improved vegetable varieties and installed or upgraded 40 irrigation structures, which extended water availability, and production, throughout the year. To ensure the quality and safety of produce, 450 growers' associations were trained in good agricultural practices, including the use of organic fertilizer and bio-pesticides. Market gardens in the capital, Kinshasa, now produce an estimated 75 000 to 85 000 tonnes of vegetables a year, or 65 percent of the city's supply.

Household food security

FAO's programme for UPH also promotes home, school and community gardens, where the urban poor grow their own fruit and vegetables and earn income from the sale of surpluses. In the Plurinational State of Bolivia, FAO helped to introduce community greenhouses and micro-gardens in the municipality of El Alto, where 70 percent of residents live in poverty and 40 percent of children under five are malnourished.

Some 1 500 families were trained to grow a wide variety of vegetables, herbs, medicinal plants and fruits in small, low-cost greenhouses. The result was a general improvement in child nutrition and family savings (averaging $US30 a month), which were spent on eggs and meat. Similar benefits were reported in Caracas after the government installed 4 000 micro-gardens in the city's poor barrios. In Ecuador, vegetable micro-gardens at 54 child development centres feed 2 500 children and earn enough from sales to be self-supporting.

FAO helped women in poor neighbourhoods of Dakar to start micro-gardens in their backyards and on patios and rooftops. Per square metre, the gardens produce each year up to 30 kg of tomatoes, lettuce and beans, which has led to a doubling of vegetable consumption among participating families.

School gardens are a proven means of promoting child nutrition. They familiarize children with horticulture, provide fresh fruit and vegetables for healthy school meals, help teachers develop nutrition courses and, when replicated at home, improve family nutrition as well. Over the past 10 years, FAO has provided tools, seeds and training to establish thousands of school gardens in more than 30 countries.