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Cities and Food: Quandary, Opportunity

Neal Peirce / Mar 23 2013

For Release Sunday, March 24, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceIn the next 40 years, the world will need to produce as much food as it has produced over all of human history. Across the planet, hundreds of millions of people go to bed hungry every night – and more and more of them live in cities.

Tackling those awesome issues requires rare smarts and ingenuity. But earlier this month, I watched an earnest try at a “Feeding Cities” conference at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Urban Research, backed by Rockefeller Foundation funding.

Cities themselves set up the problem. They’re growing, both in population and the land they consume, at amazing speed, devouring often-fertile farmlands on their periphery. The population’s food demands are requiring a dramatic expansion of farmed territory. Drawn by the hope of better incomes, youth are moving to the cities, leaving agriculture to large-scale, intensive, corporate-driven farming systems and food distribution channels.

On top of all those trends, Heather Grady of the Rockefeller Foundation noted in a keynote address, there is climate change, triggering either extreme heat or excessive rainfall and thus either drought or floods. One likely impact: price spikes, first hitting the poor who spend a large portion of their income on food.

Cities can try to toughen themselves, Grady said, by assembling disaster emergency funds and preparing themselves for “rapid rebound” – strengthening their infrastructure, building their resilience.

But they can also gird themselves for the future, the Penn conferees stressed, by reserving land for agriculture, either within their borders or in surrounding regions. Joan Clos, executive director of U.N.-HABITAT, suggested there is a clear alternative to heavy reliance on distant food supply chains:

“We should shorten the distance and create a kind of a cycle – the energy the city produces, the relationship with the land. If rural land nearby is well preserved, it has a huge advantage for the city – it can provide food, it can drain water, it can serve as a city edge to prevent sprawl.”

That means, Grady said, slowing conversion of farmlands to built-up and often paved-over – and thus water-impermeable – land: “This benefits health and nutrition; it also permits safe failure on the flooding front. Food buffer and flood buffer – two public goods are enhanced.”

The barriers to a fruitful city-rural connection are huge: Around many of today’s developing world cities, farmland is falling either to a helter-skelter mix of spontaneous, unplanned slum settlements, or to such uses as golf courses and gated communities. Fending off powerful business or political forces to preserve agricultural lands will be a tough struggle.

Another battle worth waging, said the Philadelphia conferees, is to reduce the egregious waste that plagues food systems worldwide. Food loss and waste per person in the United States have been estimated at a world-leading 650 pounds a person a year. Explanations range from careless farming to inefficient food processing to retail stories simply discarding foods that are past their sell-by dates. “In richer countries, we throw away as much food per capita as people in many parts of the world have to eat,” Grady noted.

The problem in the developing world is different but just as serious – about 40 percent of harvests rot between farm and market because of improper storage and lack of protection against storms and extreme temperatures.

“If we got rid of waste in the food process, we could go a long way toward feeding the 9 billion people” likely to be on Earth in 2050, Barbara Burlingame of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization noted.

But there’s also a joy to local foods and greater self-sufficiency – a theme underscored by Drew Becher, president of the nearly 190-year-old Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which encourages and works closely with about 270 community gardens across the Philadelphia area.

The society, which hosts the world’s largest indoor flower show each spring, is showing how to integrate vegetables into attractive garden settings. The embracing idea, Becher said, is to create social networks, opportunities for physical exercise and “outdoor classrooms for hands-on learning.”

That can be a source of exuberant fun, Indonesian architect Ridwan Kamil told the Penn gathering. Dismayed that Jakarta looked too drab, he used Twitter to suggest turning barren spaces between buildings into vegetable gardens. Young people responded in droves, creating a wave of community gardens, the new gardeners eating their own produce and selling it to nearby markets and restaurants.

“We choose a vegetable of the month, then have a once-a-month festival and invite the musical and cooking communities to interact,” said Kamil. “We cook live, very fresh. The music community helps the mood.”

To date, city-produced foods account for a tiny share of urban food needs. But one is led to wonder: If city food demand is a top 21st-century concern, perhaps city ingenuity – and spirit – can also help to forge answers.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com.

7 Comments

  1. Katja Irvin
    Posted March 23, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    I know it’s not PC, but why not mention the elephant in the room – overpopulation? Another awesome issue that requires rare smarts and ingenuity.

  2. Karen Cronin
    Posted March 23, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for a great article on a very important issue. I find the level of food waste very disturbing — especially in a world with such high levels of starvation and food insecurity. Shorter, local supply chains may help to reduce the waste from spoilage while also making cities more self-sufficient.

  3. Howard Wooldridge
    Posted March 24, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Just another short-sighted article to tweak the edges of the food supply. To not mention over-population in such an article diminishes the article to a value of a Leno joke.

    It is liking talking about slavery. Let’s have a system where owners can only whip their slaves on Sunday between noon and 2PM.. that would be a great step forward, right? I can see folks in 1850 start spending their energies to pass such a law.

  4. Tom Martineau
    Posted March 24, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Certainly those commentators who find this article shortsighted by not focusing on overpopulation must have the answer to reducing our world population to pre-1850 levels. Please share it with us. Depriving us of your perspicacity is downright cruel!
    As one of a team of experts concerning PK-12 schools, I find this article to be anything but shallow. Instead, it helps set the stage for public schools to plug into a more wholeseome food preparation strategy. I am more concerned about our youth becoming increasingly less healthy from the chemicals-laden, processed, semi-synthetic gruel they consume daily in our schools and at home. Perhaps by having our progeny die off earlier and earlier from “diabesity” we can solve the overpopulation problem while we ignore how to go about eating healthy once again.

  5. Katja Irvin
    Posted March 24, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    The only catch in the article for me is talking about planning for 9B population. I’m all for changing our food system in so many ways, from waste to genetic modifacation to type of crops grown and over consumption of meat. I did not mean to slam the entire article at all.

    There are a lot of signs of world population leveling off and we could be working on increasing that trend and learning to plan for a smaller human population rather than ignoring that inevitability. You could have said if we unfortunately reach a human population of 9 billion, we will really need to be creative to keep from having major food riots. That may be the other extreme. I’m just trying to make a point.

    I’m sorry to stir the pot, but I’m glad you offered an opportunity to respond to the article. I’m guessing you are not aware of your bias – the media and government agencies continue to predict growth and population growth but it does not seem realistic to some of us. Our economic model of growth is not sustainable.

    Thanks for the discussion,
    Katja

  6. Posted March 24, 2013 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations had some interesting things to say about the place of food production in the health of an economy. He believed that the measure of wealth is not gold or silver, but food. “Food not only constitutes the principal part of the riches of the world, but it is the abundance of food which gives the principal part of their value to many other sorts of riches.” “According to the natural course of things . . . the greatest part of the capital of every growing society is, first, directed to agriculture, afterwards to manufactures, and last of all to foreign commerce.” “The land constitutes by far the greatest, the most important, and the most durable part of the wealth of very extensive country.” “The inhabitants of the town and those of the country are mutually the servants of one another.” But modern society has inverted the natural course of things into an “unnatural and retrograde order.”
    Smith complained of the lack of respect afforded to the intelligence and learning of farmers. “. . . the art of the farmer . . . require[s] much more skill and experience than the greater part of mechanic trades. . . The common ploughman, though generally regarded as the pattern of stupidity and ignorance, . . . [yet] there is perhaps no trade which requires so great a variety of knowledge and experience.”
    Careful and attentive cultivation of land for food deserves greater respect. If we treated agriculture as the central economic activity it truly is, we wouldn’t squander rich agricultural land for development speculation and we would provide more for the education and deserved remuneration of rural peoples.

  7. Howard Wooldridge
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    Tom wants perspicacity. On one level he is correct. No one likes a critic w/o a solution. Voila.

    Quinacrine Sterilization is a highly effective, low cost, very safe method of female sterilization. That Christian and Moslem leaders hate it demonstrates how effective it is.

    The balloon will burst one day…7B, 9B in a few years…who knows. we can find oil/gas by fracking but not food.