An international conference examining the critical relationship between urbanization and food security throughout the world held at the University of Pennsylvania, March 13-15, 2013.

Food security is one of our biggest global problems. It is a commonly used, but often misunderstood, phrase that encompasses the availability, accessibility, safety, and security of what we consume. Every night nearly 870 million people go to bed hungry, an increasing number of whom live in cities. At the same time, another billion urbanites suffer from obesity-related diseases that the World Health Organization reports will be the number one killer of poor people globally by 2030. In fact, these diseases now cause close to 60 percent of all deaths worldwide. Surprisingly, nearly 80 percent of these deaths occur in developing countries

While these food-related issues may have different manifestations in different parts of the world—urban, rural, developed, developing—they are particularly worrisome for today’s and tomorrow’s burgeoning urban centers in Asia and Africa. These centers are experiencing annual urban growth rates of two percent and three percent respectively. This sprawling urban expansion comprises miles of slums or golf courses and gated communities that displace the agricultural land that once supplied those cities with food. It also challenges weak transportation and logistics systems, which now must strain to bring food to market, and adds to existing inefficiencies that contribute to rising food prices, which contributes to undernutrition, overnutrition, and malnutrition. At the same time, the developed world also exhibits health crises, most evident in pockets of deprivation where access to healthy foods is limited and, more broadly, where obesity is epidemic. So what can be done?

The Problem

Food security in rural areas is already a problem today, and trends suggest that another, larger issue is looming: the world’s need to produce as much food in the next forty years as was produced throughout all of human history. This issue is particularly challenging because food production should not come at an environmental or health cost to future generations. The fact that urbanization is changing conditions in both the developed and developing worlds makes this difficult. Delivering nutritious food safely and inexpensively to cities in all countries—but especially in the emerging metropolitan regions of the Global South where small and subsistence farming dominates—is paramount. Here, as elsewhere, cities are catalysts for large-scale intensive farming systems; this phenomenon can marginalize (and ultimately doom) small producers and potentially increase rural poverty. Simply enlarging the size of farms will not safely solve the problem of insufficient food production since industrialized agriculture can introduce problems such as pollution, wasteful water consumption practices, and zoonotic disease control challenges. Developing farmer cooperatives and contract farming—another commonly proposed solution—also falls short because integrators prefer to deal with larger entities, which have lower transaction costs, exhibit higher reliability, and inspire brand allegiance. And supermarkets, while efficient, impose food quality and safety standards that small farmers have difficulty meeting.

Urban expansion and farm consolidations inextricably link the people and lives in urban and rural places. To deal with urban food security, we will need to absorb or retrain the people displaced by these phenomena, contemplating not only how to feed people but also addressing the attendant social and economic issues. This will require integrating food security considerations into broader public economic development policy by governments and donor and lender groups.

The Required Actions

Given the pace and trajectory of urbanization, we must act quickly. We have less than a generation to craft the necessary innovations across all sectors of food production, distribution, food quality, and food safety before we reach crisis situations. Intensifying food production in places with scarcity will require innovative land conversion and agricultural intensification techniques that smooth rural land transfer rights, attract investment in modern and ecologically sustainable agricultural practices, and concentrate population in villages and small cities, easing migration to larger cities.

New Ideas, New Practices

Public decision-makers must call on key experts: agricultural and veterinary scientists, public health professionals, city and regional planners, and business leaders to get out of their silos (so to speak) and find efficient ways to produce more healthy food where populations and obesity-related diseases are growing.

This means making crop and livestock production safer where agriculture and human populations are close; more productive in the hinterlands away from rapidly urbanizing places; and building new cold chains to deliver healthy, affordable foods to slums and Gold Coast alike. It means advancing policies and practices that integrate food production and supply systems at the local and global levels, and developing joint food security and public health programs to foster understanding of food production and nutrition. Executing this plan of action will be complicated but not impossible. We must produce and supply the world’s growing population with healthy, affordable, and safe food in a sustainable manner to avoid a potential food security crisis across the world. To this end, the Feeding Cities: Food Security in a Rapidly Urbanizing World conference was convened, assembling experts from around the globe to begin building the multi-disciplinary bridges that will identify emerging best practices in food production and policy, shape new streams of research, education, and practice by forging new avenues for collaboration among traditionally siloed areas of practice and scholarship.

Held over three days, conference attendees heard presentations and participated in plenary and focused breakout sessions designed to facilitate a discussion to identify implementable solutions to the fundamental challenge of our modern age: how to provide a sustainable, nutritious and affordable diet to the world’s burgeoning urban populous. More than 60 distinguished speakers and some 450 attendees across the public, private and non-profit sectors were assembled on Penn's campus to advance the conference’s ambitious, though achievable goals:

  1. Stimulate constructive dialogue and foster the exchange of knowledge among a diverse group of speakers and attendees and
  2. Spur the creation of teaching, research and practice-based coalitions, with participation from both the public and private sectors, dedicated to ensuring a secure, sustainable and equitable food distribution system for the 21st century.

Toward this end, speakers and attendees examined the interrelated issues of supply, demand, environment, geography, governance, as well as urban food access, price and distribution.

The conference program included keynote presentations from Joan Clos, Executive Director, UN-HABITAT; Yael Lehmann, Executive Director, The Food Trust; Ridwan Kamil, Founder and Principal, Urbane Indonesia; Heather Grady, Vice President, Foundation Initiatives, The Rockefeller Foundation; Professor Barry Popkin, W.R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor, Department of Nutrition, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Drew Becher, President, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) among other prominent leaders from the private sector and academia, as well as 5 high-profile plenary panels and 12 focused breakout sessions. Attendees were also invited to experience the Feeding Cities Photography Exhibition and gallery tour, showcasing the work of the Penn community working and studying around the world, as well as to explore the conference book fair.