The Urban Food Security challenge: a step towards winning the Hunger Games

Are the Hunger Games real?

If you read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy or watch its 2012 film adaptation with Jennifer Lawrence, for some of you the settings of the book/movie would seem very familiar: a dystopian society where people live in (sometimes extreme) hunger and poverty and are obliged to fight forfood and survival. It the surreal world of Panem presented in ‘The Hunger Games’, it seems that a few of the world`s rich control the food supply and that give food to those in need.

Hunting Bushmen

Moving from Panem to present day Africa, we see that almost 250 million people in Africa are undernourished today (according to the FAO 2013 Statistical Yearbook) or about 28,7% of the world’s undernourished. Although not as depicted in movies, in Africa people have been fighting for survival and food for years. The best/worst example are the 2007-2008 African Food Riots that were sparked by high increases in food prices across the world. From Mozambique to Burkina Faso, Algeria and South Africa, people went to the streets to protest against the sky rocketing prices that deemed them unable to feed themselves and their families.

When we speak about food security today, we tend to think about rural communities and smallholder farmers barely being able to survive. But, in fact, as most United Nations predictions show (check out the 2012 State of Food Insecurity in the World by the FAO), by 2050 almost 70% of the 9 billion people that we aim to feed will live in urban areas. And, in 2012, most of the people that are undernourished live in urban areas also.

So the key question in everybody`s mind should be:

How do we make sure African cities are food secure?…

…even when rural agriculture does not provide enough food to feed itself…

In the past years, before I started working on global food security policies, I worked mainly on how rural and urban areas interact. I used to search simple patterns that can be used to better develop both types of areas: from the brain drain present in any country of the world to resource flows going each way, and many others. When I moved towards trying to ‘feed the world‘, I noticed that the patterns that I researched could be used to give custom solutions to each community in order to end food security and prevent future food crisis.

I am sure that many people will agree that we can’t improve agricultural productivity everywhere and at any cost…or we can’t increase the surface used for agriculture for simple practical reasons. Even if technology allows us to create better hybrids with increased yields per hectare, that doesn’t mean we can use them.

For example, let’s take Sub-Saharan Africa. The variety of climate zones and ecoregions here would probably lead everybody to believe that it has the perfect conditions to adapt and grow plants as we wish. But, unfortunately, SSA is the part of the world that faces extreme poverty and undernourishment especially due to this climatic conditions.

From arid to semi-arid and lush savanna forests, the SSA is ‘home’ of some of the worst agricultural conditions. But still agriculture is practiced here also…and with great success. Agricultural researchers continue to adapt plants to the climate conditions, improving the yields. But as more and more people move away from rural to urban areas, there are less people to grow the new hybrids, to maximize their potential and to ensure food security.

In order to do these for the current and future population of the whole of Africa (not just the SSA), it`s time to consider urban food security as the ‘game changer’. Solutions like permacultureroof top gardens or vertical farming have been developed for years now.

Projects like Urban Food Plus or associations like African Food Security Urban Network (AFSUN) are now try to grow African communities, making them knowledgeable about how urban food security can be reached and opening them up to dialogue, while integrating the social and economic benefits of urban agriculture in this open exchange.

If policy makers wish cities to become food secure, they can do more than just discuss policy. They can and should:

  • Offer free spaces for private business owners in the food industry (restaurants, retailers etc.) in exchange of a certain amount of food being sold at a price set by the municipality;
  • Offer government owned free spaces to people interested in urban farming for ensuring their family`s food basket. Spaces such as dry riverbeds, patches of wastelands, road side spaces etc. could be used;
  • Agricultural education for all: through a ‘school gardening‘ program children could learn agricultural skills and, at the same time, the products harvested from the school garden could be used as a ‘one meal per day per children in school‘, thus ensuring at least one meal per day for children. This way, children would benefit both from education and food, the programme could be used as a method of reducing illiteracy in Africa.

These are just a few measures that could be adopted quite fast and easy by any local authority in Africa. By integrating these in a long term plan to end food insecurity, Africa is one step closer to winning the Hunger Games.

Picture courtesy of Longwood University

Blogpost originally posted on the FARA Science Week blog.