Urban Food Security in Developing Countries: Does it matter, what do we know and what should we do?

The challenges for poor residents in urban areas can be different to those living in rural areas when it comes to achieving basic food security in developing countries. Firstly, they are likely to have less access to – or likely to have access to less – land, thus self-reliance on own production is reduced. Urbanites’ diets also typically vary to those of ruralites. For example, in Guatemala rice is almost exclusively consumed in urban and peri-urban areas (1). Both these factors make urban dwellers more reliant on the purchase of foods, leading to higher vulnerability to fluctuations in domestic and international prices: for instance, almost all Guatemala’s rice is imported(1). In addition, food insecurity in urban areas is less visible than say sanitation problems, over-crowding and so on, and therefore is not on the policy priority agenda for city ministers (2).

This is not to say that assumptions can be made over whether it is the rural or urban poor who are more prone to food insecurity: the link between the widely reported increasing urbanisation of poverty (3) and urban food insecurity requires further empirical and ethnographic research and evidence-based confirmation. But it does highlight the fact that the challenges faced can differ, requiring tailored policy responses.

Urbanites’ survival strategies, of course, are very context specific and scarcity of literature in the area makes generalizations difficult. However, in a cross-national analysis of 15 nations, a recent study (4) found that urban agriculture is highly prevalent.

We cannot assume that growth of urban agriculture necessarily reflects people’s coping strategies to meet food security needs in times of trouble. Instead, it may well be an expression of cultural identities: when farmers and rural populations are physically or economically pushed off their land to seek employment in the city, their participation in urban agriculture can be an expression of their rural identity.  Russian Dachas serve as a good example of this, to which we will get to shortly.

In conflict societies dominated by a predatory state, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), urban populations have shown resilience and coping strategies of developing informal networks of food production, transportation and trading, leading to some staples such as bread being available at incredibly low prices (5).

When hit with shortages, urban populations can display similar strategies to rural ones, which include the diversification of incomes into other activities; informalization of work; new entrants into the labour market, such as women and children; changing of diets; and strengthening of urban-rural kinship links (6).

There are psychological coping mechanisms too. For example, between the 1970s to 1990s Egypt’s state legitimacy and welfare food provision for the population went hand in hand. A widespread voucher ration system operated to lower the costs of basic staples. In a detailed ethnographic work, one researcher(2) describes the post-rationalization psychological coping strategies of Egyptians who saw and described voucher-subsidized food as somehow inadequate in quality or demeaning when it was inaccessible due to shortages, yet fine and ‘clean as a flower’ in times of plentiful access.

The next question we need to address is what exactly is urban and what is rural, and should they be treated differently? Taking the production of food (agriculture) as an example there are no clear divides. Let’s take a look at the example of the Russian “gardening” practice of having Dachas – plots of land outside of metropoles that many urbanites own or rent, keep and maintain mainly for the production of food – which nearly half of urban Russians still engage in today (7).

In my personal experience of growing up in Stavropol, a metropole of over 350,000 people in Southwestern Russia, every year our dacha delivered a plentiful harvest of everything from potatoes, beets, carrots, cucumbers, and red juicy tomatoes; gooseberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, strawberries, and raspberries; apricots, cherries, and walnuts; onions, garlic, parsley, dill, mint, and sour sorrel; courgettes, turnips, and sweet purple aubergines to name but a few. Some would be eaten, but most would either be conserved for the winter in jams, ragus, spicy dips, or simply in brine, or given away to friends, family, neighbors, and the handyman who sealed the cracks in our cement balcony. The dacha was a one or two hour journey by bus and an extra half an hour walk and definitely in what one would describe as a rural agricultural area. It was not light graft and was hand watered by my parents, my sister, and I from the main communal water taps, hand ploughed and weeded in the 40 degree Celsius summer heat. My grandparents on my dad’s side, who would shower us with similar harvested gifts, lived 90km away in Gorodovikovsk in Kalmykia, a small rural town of 10,000 (despite its size, when you visit you are not left with a sense of being somewhere remotely ‘urban’). My mother’s parents, uncles, and aunts, and everyone in the extended family, had their own dachas too. When leaving Russia we sold our car and all our belongings, but the rights to the Dacha were handed over to our grandparents: it had far too much emotional and cultural value to be sold, holding on to something sacred representing a time before the market-focused reorientation of the Russian economy.

Russian dachas are not simply an economic survival or food security strategy (as they are treated in much of the literature) (8), but are the stage for a discursive cultural battle over status and class (7), and what used to be: communism; and what is now: ‘rampant capitalism’, as my grandmother puts it. Further, dachas illustrate the complete and utter blur that exists between rural and urban areas, and rural and urban ‘households’, especially as the dichotomy is applied to food security and meeting individual, household and community nutritional requirements.

This type of blurring of the rural-urban nexus is further highlighted by urbanization and migration of ‘peasants’ from rural areas. For example, as is currently being witnessed in Guatemala, movements from below, from the grassroots, are, and have been through the thirsty six year Civil War and since the 1996 Peace accords, fighting for rural justice through land reform and a reversal of monopolization of Guatemala’s fertile lands. These are increasingly lent support to and joined by the now urban movements of ex-rural peasants, whose memories are still fresh of their lives in the countryside (9).

So what role does the state and the international community play and is there a need for a rethink? As mentioned above, food security in urban areas is not at the top of the policy agenda due to its relative invisibility. This can be dependent on expectations of welfare provision as we saw in Egypt. However, this is becoming less so with new generations growing up with rising population, spread of Islamic ideology, and liberalism, and a diminishing view of the state as a (capable) provider of food. It is further assumed that rural development will drive growth and therefore urban development, thus focusing national and international policy priorities in the countryside. Coping strategies such as urban agriculture and informal food trade networks are viewed negatively and efforts are put in place to eradicate them at the fear of compromising, amongst other things, rural development.

In reality, urban agriculture can be a significant addition to gross domestic product (GDP), as well as urban household incomes, and have positive effects on consumption levels and nutrition security through greater dietary diversity. For example, in Guatemala, one of the countries in the cross-national comparative study mentioned previously (4), some 42 percent of the urban population are involved in urban agriculture: 35 percent in crop production and 26 percent in livestock. There is higher participation among poorest quintiles (70 percent), although over 20 percent of the highest quintile are also engaged in it. Of course the reasons for engaging in urban agriculture for these two groups could be very different (i.e. necessity vs leisure activity) and more detailed country studies would be needed to establish this. Most of Guatemala’s urbanely produced food is consumed domestically, however about 10 percent is also traded (more in other nations like Nicaragua, Nepal, and many African nations). All this leads to seven percent greater dietary variety, with Guatemalans who are engaged in urban agriculture consuming more meat, fruit, vegetables, and dairy and staple products. Even higher figures are reported for other countries and the effect holds for two thirds of the sample after controlling for economic wealth and household characteristics.

Given the complexities of the problem and the variety of livelihood strategies and responses we have seen, as well as differences in cultural practices and the blur that is the assumed rural-urban division, national and international communities have a duty to learn more about urban food security, its links to rural areas, and how it is met within their specific national, regional, and local contexts. Assumptions ruling the policy space should therefore be addressed with evidence-based policies to aid and build on existing private efforts in meeting food security challenges.

How can we better address the problem of urban food insecurity? Leave a reply below.

Ioulia Fenton is the food and agriculture lead at the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.

(1) USAID (2010) “Guatemala Food Security Outlook”, available online.
(2) Maxwell, Dan (1998) The Political Economy of Urban Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa. Washington, D.C.: IFPRI, Food Consumption and Nutrition Division. Available on the web.
(3) Ruel, Marie T.; Garrett, James L.; Morris, Saul S.; Maxwell, Daniel; Oshaug, Arne; Engle, Patrice; Menon, Purnima; Slack, Alison and Haddad, Lawrence (1998) “Urban Challeges to Food and Nutrition Security: A Review of Food Security, Health, and Caregiving in the Cities.”, FCND Discussion Paper No 51, International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, available online.
(4) Zezza, Alterbo and Luca Tascotti (2010) ‘Urban agriculture, poverty, and food security: Empirical evidence from a sample of developing countries’, Food Policy.
(5) Tollens, Eric (2004) ‘Food security in Kinshasa: Coping with adversity’, in Theodore Trefon (ed.) Reinventing Order in the Congo: How People Respond to State Failure in Kinshasa. London: Zed, pp. 47-64.
(6) Khouri-Dagher, Nadia (1996) ‘The state, urban households, and management of daily life: Food and social order in Cairo’, in Diane Singerman and Homa Hoodfar (eds) Development, Change, and Gender in Cairo: A view from the Household. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 110-33.
(7) Zavisca, Jane (2003). “The Meaning of Urban Gardening in Russia: An Ethnography of the Post-Soviet Dacha”, Paper submitted for consideration for the Regular Session on Ethnography for the American Sociological Association 2003 annual meeting.
(8) For example, a recent analysis of the Russian Longitudinal Monitoring Survey: Southworth, Caleb (2006). “The Dacha Debate: Household Agriculture and Labor Markets in Post-Socialist Russia”, Rural Sociology, 71(3), pp. 451-478.
(9) Wittman, Hanah & Saldivar-Tanaka, Laura (2003), “The Agrarian Question in Guatemala”, publication of Land Action Network available online.


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