4 Ways Cities Can Improve Food Security

CC BY 2.0. Global Water Forum – View of irrigated farmland in Yunnan, China

A Chinese report suggests a mix of high-tech and common-sense solutions.

It is becoming harder to produce enough food for everyone in the world. The population is growing rapidly, and more of those people are moving to urban settings, which drives the destruction and development of croplands, in order to create more housing.

To complicate things further, as people get richer, their diet typically shifts and they start eating more meat and dairy products, which are far more climate intensive to produce than grains, vegetables, and legumes.

Chinese researchers, who have witnessed the detrimental effects of rapid population growth and urban sprawl, have put forward four suggestions to improve food security for swelling cities. Published in the journal Nature, these recommendations are meant to help China improve farming efficiency and achieve yields more comparable to those of Europe and North America (currently China's crop yields are 10-40% lower), as well as encourage the Chinese population to eat more sustainably. Here is what they recommend:

1. The government should set up campaigns to promote optimum diets and reduce food waste.

Urban dwellers waste more food than rural ones. In Shanghai, 80 percent of households and 40 percent of restaurants throw away edible produce amounting to 12 percent of all food supplies. This amount is only 2 percent in rural areas. The researchers call on scientists and industry to "develop techniques to preserve fresh food for longer, including better refrigeration," as well as the implementation of food-sharing initiatives.

People should be educated about the importance of eating fewer animal products and focusing on cereals, vegetables, and fruits instead.

2. Planners should prioritize both compact urban development and efforts to consolidate agricultural land.

The rampant construction that happens in the countryside needs to be stopped and land must be freed up for farming. The Chinese government has been doing this in part since 2009, paying people who have migrated to cities to demolish their abandoned rural homes in order to free up cropland. The report says, "By 2030, one million hectares of rural land should be returned to agriculture in this way. Japan has used similar strategies since the 1920s."

The consolidation of agricultural land makes it easier for intensive farming methods to be used, resulting in higher yields. According to the report, smaller farm holdings are worse for the environment because they use more fertilizers and pesticides.

3. Skills training and funding is required to enable farmers to manage larger areas, maximize yields, and minimize inputs.

There is a need for government investment in improving irrigation, roads, and machinery. Farmers must be taught how to farm in a newly efficient, modern way, "following best practices in choosing crop varieties, fertilization and irrigation."

4. Livestock breeding and feed mixtures must be improved.

The goal is to match the efficiency levels seen in the U.S. and Europe, and to breed animals that use nutrients and crop residues more efficiently to produce more food. (It takes 3-8 kilograms of grain to produce 1 kg of meat.) The report also recommends incentives for farmers to switch from beef and pork to chicken, fish, and milk, which have lower environmental footprints.

In conclusion,

"As the planet urbanizes, managing food demand while optimizing supply and banishing waste is the only way to ensure everyone has enough to eat."

The report does not align exactly with my idealistic visions of small-scale organic and local agriculture, but keep in mind that it is looking at a huge global population whose appetite for animal products appears insatiable, and it's trying its best to manage that. I do like the emphasis on needing to cut down on food waste and on choosing lower-impact food sources. That's something we'd all do well to think about.

Read the full report here.