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Foro Global sobre Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutrición • Foro FSN

Re: Call for experiences and effective policy approaches in addressing food security and nutrition in the context of changing rural-urban dynamics

Felicity Proctor
Felicity ProctorProctorConsultUnited Kingdom

My contribution to this debate is based on a review by Proctor and Berdegué (2016). It calls for adjustments in food and agriculture related policies and investments to meet the needs of people living and working in rural-urban functional spaces.

Given the major changes taking place in the food system from production to consumption and the implications to the millions of people in diffuse and porous rural and urban places, real opportunities exist to explore the national and local policies which influence the structure of the food system. Public and private sector adjustments should be structured to mitigate the negative risks as well as foster and create new opportunities to the benefit of the populations in these places as both economic players and as consumers. Some interventions relevant to the food system at this rural–urban interface aimed to secure better social and economic local outcomes and distributional gains are summarised below.

1 Recognize the rural-urban interface and the importance of towns and intermediate cities

Deconstructing the rural-urban dichotomy is a necessary first step if any progress is to be made analytically or policy-wise for building strong and equitable food systems (Berdegué et al., 2014). The livelihoods of the majority of rural households, including smallholder farmers, are hardly only rural; “rural” defines the main place of residence, but no longer encompasses the spatial scope of livelihoods. The same is true of a large number of “urban” households, whose livelihoods are intimately dependent on the rural parts of the wider places where they also conduct their life. “Rural” and “urban” defined in the traditional way, are conceptual lenses that distort our view of the reality of social processes and can only lead to sub-optimal policies and investments. There can be no questions of promoting better market access for smallholder agricultural producers or accessing better quality and lower price food for the majority of the world’s populations, in the absence of stronger place-based rural-urban linkages for the food system. Traditional markets at the level of towns and small and medium cities continue to be the entry points to the food system for the vast majority of the world’s 500 million smallholders, because the proportion of smallholders that gain entry to the more dynamic segments of the food markets remains relatively small. Nevertheless, the deep and rapid changes taking place in the food system from production to consumption hold strong implications for local economies and employment, both urban and rural consumers, the farming community, and traditional market chain actors. It is encouraging to note there is a growing recognition by policy makers at all levels on the importance of seeking to improve the connectivity between rural and the urban places in order to foster reciprocal flows of goods, and social, economic and environmental services, for economic development, the reduction of regional inequalities, effective rural and territorial transformation, and sustainable urbanization (Berdegué et al., 2014; UNHabitat, 2015). This recognition includes support of urban based public goods that service the rural population of producers and entrepreneurs, rural-based public goods that service the economic activities in the rural areas starting with maintaining and enhancing support to agriculture and rural-urban connectivity. Strengthening rural-urban connectivity of infrastructure (including roads, electrification and telecommunications), the provision of basic public services (including fresh water and sewage, electricity, waste disposal, public safety) in particular for towns and small and medium size cities and their rural hinterland/territory, and of economic services (including high quality, transparent, and efficient wholesale markets in key sub-regional and regional cities; a new type of agricultural and food extension service: good quality farm and agribusiness integrated advisory service bureaus; financial services) in every small and medium town of a certain size is central to building vibrant local economies of which the food economy is often one central player. Specific policy opportunities policy exist at the national level to bring together and make coherent the overarching and relevant thematic strategies of rural and urban development as well as sectoral strategies and policies directly and indirectly relevant to the food system. These include agriculture, food, industry, public health, labour and employment, and education and skills development through technical and vocational training. Land reform policy including land access and security and conflict mitigation and resolution at the rural–urban intersection, is critical to the local debate on the food system and in the context of evolving land use change. Further, national public policy can play a central role in innovation and bringing together social programs with those which address rural and urban household economic development and public health issues. These offer opportunities in food system diversification nationally and at the local level for example school feeding programs, maternal health and nutrition, and through innovation in food access for the poorest. Support in building the capacity of national and local governments and municipalities is central to prioritize and improve the design and implementation of policies and investments. Only then can opportunities be optimized through the development of the food system in these diffuse and interlinked rural-urban functional territories.

2 Improve the investment environment in towns and intermediate cities

Ranging from the small-scale producer to multinational agribusiness corporations, the private sector stakeholders are the central players in the food system. The investment choices they make are directly influenced by public policy and investment. It is fundamental to attract investment in agriculture, in the intermediate segments of the food system, and in agricultural sector inputs and services, as well as in associated manufacturing and services indirectly linked to the food system to foster local economic development and to secure better social and economic local outcomes and distributional gains through the food system. At the national level, governments can play a key role to support policies that avoid metropolitan bias to reduce the gaps in public goods provision in rural areas and towns and small and medium cities and to adapt policies and public incentives (targeted subsidies) which enable medium and large firms to locate into regions of the country where social benefits (to the local economy and employment) can be derived. These should promote reducing and dismantling of transfer mechanisms and schemes which are spatially and socially regressive for example that generally favour medium and large firms located in more favourable regions of the country. Tax breaks and regulatory structures, for example, can create incremental incentives for: agribusiness to diversify the spread of business investment (processing, cold storage, logistics, inputs, etc.) into towns and small and medium size cities; investment in agribusiness modernization, innovation and in research and development in the food sector with implications to competiveness locally and nationally. Secondary and tertiary technical and vocational training in agriculture, food processing, business skills, quality assurance, is critical to build a labor market (formal and informal) for the sector. Making such training and education available at a decentralized level helps to ensure that the necessary skills are available in order that people in rural areas and in small and medium size cities can take up emerging employment opportunities. Critically at subnational level, there is a need to develop innovative models of association between local governments (urban and rural municipalities making up a functional territory) to face the wider governance challenge of strengthening rural-urban linkages and to build the capacity to develop the local food system in the interests of building up the local economy, servicing the local needs of the food system for income generation and to meet the consumption needs of local people. A sound local structure can also underpin the links of the local food system with wider national and global markets where opportunities arise. The skills and knowledge of municipal and local governments and urban planners may benefit from being strengthened to help build coherent planning between rural and urban jurisdictions in order to maximize the food systems’ contribution to local economic development and job creation. Specific topics that may require attention include: zoning for wholesale and retail markets, modern retail, industrial parks including for the food sector; local land use planning; urban-rural public transportation; services of the local government that have a direct impact on agri-food private sector investment and economic activities (including informal and household-based enterprises) for example licensing and fees, wholesale market management and supervision, modernization of traditional food retail and retail market management; removal of barriers that limit the diversification of the food system often in favour of modern retail whilst maintaining the basic principles of public health; and support to local food safety regulation including the provision of necessary training and capacity building of key actors for example street traders and food processors. Private and public sectors engaged in the food system sector and food related policy must come together at the national level and critically at the sub-national level (functional territory) to ensure a shared understanding the changes taking place, to address gaps in services, and to address choices and trade-offs between food system options and their associated opportunities.

3 Foster retail diversity including the potential of short chains

There exists a need to remove barriers to inclusion (from smallholders to informal and formal small and medium scale enterprises including those engaged in traditional retail and food preparation) as well as to build new opportunities for income generation in the food system. Ensuring that food is available of an acceptable quality and nutritional diversity and accessible in terms of price and location for purchase remains central to public policy and societal well-being. Innovative models of alternative food systems and diversified retail options offer such potential benefits to both smallholders and urban consumers (access, availability and nutrition) including differentiated groups of urban households, for example, the poor, slum dwellers, migrant workers and commuters, middle class consumers, etc., These may include for example: short chain models; public procurement policy and practice; food and gastronomy fairs; city-region food systems; smallholder and small and medium enterprise inclusion in modern food systems; and linking traditional and modern food systems at different stages along the chain including input services. Such models (some already adopted in parts of the world) would benefit from full documentation including evaluation for their social and economic impacts, sharing, and further development.

4 Generating evidence to inform practice

There remain significant gaps in knowledge on the transformation of the food system in countries at different stages of food system change specifically on the spatial differentiation and impacts and the implications of such change for socially-inclusive growth, employment and food access and availability. Future studies in this area should also include the interaction between patterns of urbanization and food system transformation. Studies should address the determinants of location of investment of agrifood processing firms of all scales and levels of formality, and the associated impacts on the local farming community, labor markets, and poverty levels. There is a need to understand social institutions and other factors that prevent certain groups (women, youth, indigenous and ethnic minority groups, castes, poorest smallholders and rural households) in rural and urban societies from gaining equal access to opportunities created in the sector. Few studies have been conducted on the health impacts of changing food supply systems and consumption patterns of different (socio-economic categories) consumers in rural towns and cities of different scales including how and where people access food. Filling this gap is critical to contributing to tackling chronic health conditions and has the opportunity to open the debate on the impact and options for alternative food systems. Outputs from such studies can help to inform national and subnational public policy and intervention. Dynamic change is taking place within the food system in all developing countries with implications which impact strongly on rural and small town and city livelihoods, local economies and well-being including employment and job creation, food access and human nutrition and health. Such change has the potential to have effects which may or may not be desirable and which once in place may be difficult to reverse. Systems to monitor food system change at local and national levels and to take necessary corrective actions need to be put in place. This requires cross sectoral coordination and coordination at both territorial and national levels, with the former cutting across this increasingly diffuse and porous interface of rural and urban societies.


Berdegué, J. A. and Proctor F. J. with Cazzuffi C., (2014) Inclusive Rural–Urban Linkages. Working Paper Series N° 123. Working Group: Development with Territorial Cohesion. Territorial Cohesion for Development Program. Rimisp, Santiago, Chile. Desk review prepared for the Ford Foundation.

Proctor, F. J. and Berdegué, J. A. (2016) Food systems at the rural-urban interface. Working Paper series N° 194. Rimisp, Santiago, Chile.

UNHABITAT (2015) Urban–Rural Linkages. HABITAT Issues Papers 10