May 3, 2016 by

More people are moving to urban areas, and making new connections with rural farmers will be necessary to feed them.
Urban agriculture in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. (Photo: Sergio Ruiz via SPUR/Flickr)

Tove Danovich is a journalist based in New York City.


Urban farms may provide a delicious source of delicate salad greens, honey, and even the occasional eggs, but they’re a long way from feeding entire cities. As rural areas continue to house much of the world’s poor, the question of who feeds these dense, agriculture-scarce areas becomes even more important. Linking small or subsistence farmers to urban markets could provide a way out of poverty for them, as well as opportunities for developing better infrastructure, creating new jobs along the way.

More people already live in urban areas than in rural areas. Between 1950 and 2014, the global urban population grew from 749 million to 3.9 billion, according to the U.N.’s DESA Population Division. By 2050, there could be as many as 2.5 billion more city dwellers.

Some of the highest growth is in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where “feeding urban populations has become an urgent and critical challenge,” according to a new report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. As incomes rise, consumer diets stop focusing on subsistence crops such as grains or starches as they demand more meats, produce, and other high-value items. In developing regions, 80 to 90 percent of food consumed comes from domestic supply chains rather than imports.

“In Ethiopia, Malawi, and Niger, the majority of economic activity of small towns has been found to be linked to food supply chains,” the report reveals. Farmers with access to urban markets can transition to higher-value crops, which, because of their perishability, often require developing a number of additional jobs along the food chain. In addition to transportation infrastructure, there is a need to handle, package, and process these foods, “providing critical rural employment opportunities,” according to the report.

And these supply chains can span a large geographic distance. In Beijing, for example, the chain for rice, fish, and potatoes can reach 600–800 miles outside of the city. Moving perishable foods over these distances requires access to electricity for cold storage, which is out of reach for many smallholder farmers. Yet, if cities and organizations can invest in shared food hubs that offer on-demand access to cold storage, it would allow many small rural farmers to access urban markets. Additionally, access to rural credit and extension services can give farmers the means and skills to improve their operations.

It wasn’t that long ago that New York City’s fish, produce, and meat markets were concentrated in dense Lower Manhattan, and much of the food traveled relatively short distances, from neighboring areas like Connecticut, Long Island, or upstate New York. Now, more than 5.7 million tons of food a year are flown into the city’s main market from locations around the world.

Cities can source food from many locations, making it hard for small farmers to compete in production and transaction costs without help. While the year-round demand for food in urban areas can become an important source of income, it also requires farmers to diversify enough to provide food for more of the year and to do so while maintaining high standards for appearance and food safety.

Urban markets will continue to grow. The question is whether small farmers will be allowed to grow with them or get left behind entirely.

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