Feeding Asian cities

Sri Lanka: fruits at a wholesale market in Colombo

Viet Nam: food for sale at street level in Hanoi

FAO's "Food Supply and Distribution to Cities" initiative is set to start work in Asia, home to 61 percent of the world's population and the highest concentration of cities in the world. The region's urban population is growing rapidly. In China, it swells by 15 million people every year, in India the figure is 7.3 million and in Bangladesh, 1.2 million.

Under its "Food Supply and Distribution to Cities" trust-fund programme, FAO has been working for five years to highlight the food insecurity of the urban poor and the pressing need for action to give them access to safe and adequate food. In Asia, 20 to 40 percent of the urban population are classified as poor.

The programme - which relies on external funding - has already worked with a number of cities in Africa, Asia, the Near East and Latin America, to address their urban food insecurity problems. In November 2000, a regional sensitization seminar on "Feeding Asian Cities" will be held in Bangkok.

The millions of men, women and children who make up the urban poor are acutely vulnerable to the shortcomings of food supply and distribution systems to the cities. They often live far from markets and are forced to pay high prices for poor quality food. FAO estimates that low-income urban households spend 60 to 80 percent of their budget on food - 30 percent more than rural households.

Often the cities' markets themselves are a threat to the health of the consumers. They may lack the basic infrastructure and facilities necessary for safe hygienic handling of food and frequently have little or no sanitation. The poorer traders are often forced to keep their goods at street level with little to protect them from the dust, mud and filth. Consumers, who pay the ultimate consequences, are often powerless to complain.

An FAO workshop held in 1999 in Hanoi, reported that 15 to 20 percent of fruit and vegetable products in the city's markets are lost during transport and handling - pushing up prices and reducing overall quality. A survey of animal products in Hanoi markets revealed staggeringly high levels of contamination by aerobic germs, Ecoli, Salmonella, antibiotic residues, DDT and heavy metals (workshop report).

The Bangkok seminar will be organized by the Association of Food Marketing Agencies and Citynet, in collaboration with FAO and the International Union of Local Authorities. Its objectives are to:

  • identify the major challenges to food security for the urban poor in Asian cities,
  • define the role that city and local authorities can and should play in facing these challenges,
  • prepare a ten-year plan of action to strengthen these authorities' capacity to enhance urban food security,
  • promote South-South and North-South collaboration to address specific problems.

The seminar is open to all interested parties - particularly municipalities, provinces, regions and other local authorities; food marketing agencies; ministries of agriculture, planning, urban development, commerce and health; research institutions; non-governmental organizations; consumers' associations; food traders, processors, producers and transporters; and donors. Some 100 participants are expected.

"We are trying to get people realize that the problem of food security in many cities is already severe and cannot be solved piecemeal," said FAO's Olivio Argenti, Focal Point of the "Food Supply and Distribution to Cities" programme.

"Cities need a food supply and distribution policy. They need a programme of interventions covering urban, peri-urban and rural areas, which will need to be implemented by different institutions including the private sector," Mr Argenti said. FAO has developed a guide to help cities analyse and address their problems.

"One day of the meeting will be dedicated to how cities can help each other and we hope that European and North American cities and local authorities will also attend," Mr Argenti said. "We aim to help local authorities in Asia to gain confidence in identifying their own problems and finding sustainable solutions. At that point they can make the best investment decisions, provide the required incentives for stimulating private sector investments and ensure that technological packages can be adapted to local conditions. We aim to convince cities to think about their future from the point of view of the food security of the poor urban households."

The topics to be discussed at the seminar - food production, processing, rural-urban linkages, distribution, policies, programmes and more - are succinctly presented in the recently published Briefing Guide for Mayors, City Executives and Urban Planners -"Food for the Cities. Food Supply and Distribution Policies to Reduce Urban Food Insecurity".

There are three ways for non-donors to participate in the Bangkok seminar:

  • by preparing a background document,
  • by preparing a key paper,
  • by taking responsibility for a workshop.

Limited funds may be available for sponsoring selected seminar participants from the region who fulfil the requirements.

For full details of this seminar, go to the web pages.

Interested institutions can also contact [email protected].

15 June 2000

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