Participants of the International GFFA Panel.

Participants of the International GFFA Panel.
Photo: Messe Berlin

How do we feed the cities?

Already for the eighth time, the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) was held in Berlin, Germany. This year, the question of how the burgeoning urban population can be fed in the future was on the agenda.

According to United Nation forecasts, three quarters of the world population, i.e. seven billion people, will be living in cities by 2050. The reliable provision of sufficient amounts of healthy food for these people is a special challenge, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated in his video message to the 8th Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA). For three days, in Berlin/Germany in mid-January, around 2,000 representatives of politics and business, science, and civil society from more than 100 countries discussed how food supplies for people living in the cities can be ensured in the future and what the role of agriculture and rural areas will be in this context.

Germany’s Federal Minister of Agriculture Christian Schmidt reminded the participants that the greatest migration movement in our times continues to be that of people moving from rural to urban areas. Often, this also goes hand in hand with hunger and poverty as well as malnutrition and undernutrition coming to the urban centres. “The rapidly increasing numbers of people in the cities combined with an insufficient availability and lack of access to food form a dangerous source of social and political instability,” the Minister explained. As yet, however, the food factor had often been neglected in discussions concerning the future of cities.

Agriculture entering the cities

However, there are also examples of the opposite, as Giuliano Pisapia, Lord Mayor of Milan/Italy, demonstrated. Pisapia reminded the meeting that food production was responsible for 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions world-wide. At the same time, an annual 1.3 billion tons of food was thrown away; this wastage alone was causing an annual 170 megatons of carbon dioxide. Not did this Italian politician initiate the “Milan Urban Food Policy Pact” – in signing the alliance at Expo 2015, the mayors of 116 cities committed themselves to orienting their food systems on sustainability. “In Milan, we hand out 92,000 meals a day to schoolchildren and those in need of care while having succeeded in reducing food losses by 70 per cent,” the Lord Mayor reported. In addition, the city had provided space for urban orchards and kitchen gardens; nowadays, such gardens were a standard feature at each of Milan’s schools. “We have to ensure the right to access to healthy food for all people,” Pisapia demanded.

Belo Horizonte is the capital of the Brazilian Federal State of Minas Gerais. This city has a population of 2.5 million people and covers an area of almost 10,000 square kilometres. It is home to 84 per cent of the Federal State’s inhabitants. The city government of “Beautiful Horizon”, which is what its Portuguese name means, was already speculating over food supplies for the city 20 years ago. Current Lord Mayor Marcio Lacerda, in his second period of office, presented the programme in Berlin.

The first school gardens were started in 1991. Four years later, with the support of the United Nations, the municipal authorities turned this into a full-scale programme. In hundreds of forums, projects were discussed at all levels, with special attention being given to people’s participation right from the start. The city has extended its food aid, so that Belo Horizonte now is a “city without hunger”. Today, the food banks hand out up to 11,000 meals for the registered homeless on a daily basis, while 350,000 meals are provided in the schools every day. Such measures are based on staff training measures run both in the public and the private sector and focusing on topics such as planting calendars, soil cultivation and crop rotation. After all, there are also quality checks after the final stage of production.

Today, Belo Horizonte has 144 small garden lots, sized between 200 and 3,000 square metres. In addition, via the municipal authorities, 55 community gardens have been created for the public to grow food in; 50 of them are being run by small associations, while five larger ones are producing for commerce. Thus the people in Belo Horizonte can grow their own varieties – in fact, municipal act 10.255/11 even guarantees them this right. In the context of associations, individual responsibilities for daily duties are assigned to members. In addition, the first contracts with farmers from Minas Gerais have been signed for direct food deliveries; the farmers are providing an annual amount of roughly 740 tons at 52 special retail outlets.

Peri-urban solutions

Sir Gordon Conway of Imperial College London praised the successful example of Belo Horizonte; nevertheless, he does not believe that it can be applied on a global scale. Conway maintains that ultimately, it was important useful plants such as grain, maize or turnips, all of which require a large amount of space, which fed the people. And this space was not sufficiently available in the growing cities. This was why the city had to rely on rural regions. The peri-urban area would have to feed the megacities.

Ann Tutwiler, Director-General of the Bioversity International research institution, reminded the meeting that diseases that can be traced back to poor or one-sided nutrition continued to be on the advance, especially also in burgeoning cities. However, this also opened up opportunities for agricultural enterprises in cities and areas close by since they could offer food to diversify diets. “This would above all offer women new sources of income,” Tutwiler maintained.

Bouchaïb Harris, a Moroccan farmer, presented an example. In 2006, he switched to organic agriculture since conventional production was no longer profitable. He joined forces with a large number of his colleagues to form a producer co-operative in the village of Dar Bouazza, outside the city gates of Casablanca, which now provides baskets of vegetables to the urban population on a subscription basis. “Many farmers seeking employment in the city have returned to their farms,” Harris explained. This enormously improved their life standards. “We have upgraded their profession again,” he added.” The farmers own no more than a hectare of land, and they cultivate the fields together using the traditional “Touisa” system. Nowadays, Bouchaïb Harris also works as a trainer in a specially created educational garden.

In the neighbouring village of Ouled Ahmed, the local women’s association has been developing a community garden. The women received two years of training in areas ranging from sowing to producing their own seed. In addition, they have learnt the best ways to process, present and sell their produce. “Not only can the women now eat healthy vegetables that they themselves have grown locally, they are also contributing to family income,” Harris explained.

Roland Krieg, journalist; Silvia Richter, editor, Rural 21

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