Ensuring food security in a rapidly urbanising world is becoming a critical concern of the 21st century. Today, more than half of the world population lives in urban areas. This percentage is estimated to increase to two thirds by 2050. Such accelerated urbanisation has a significant impact on farming, the development of sustainable food systems and the development of rural areas. Responding to these challenges, a High Level Panel met at the invitation of the EU Commission during the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) in Berlin in January.
In his keynote speech, Professor Sir Gordon Conway from Imperial College, London summarised the main challenges and presented his proposals for action. According to Sir Gordon, the greatest challenge is the rapid growth of megacities, particularly in Africa, where people need work and have to be fed. In addition, he said, there are changing food patterns, for example a greater demand for meat, nutritious high-quality foods and organic products. Shortfalls in communication and a lacking extension system mean that agricultural producers in rural areas cannot respond to these changing food patterns. Africa in particular suffers from the lack of functioning local markets, inadequate rural infrastructure, poor education systems and many other problems.
There is also competition for the natural resources of land and water, Conway emphasised, with the cities expanding into rural areas and driving farmers off valuable arable land. The growing cities also need increasingly precious water. Even with all these problems in the urban-rural relationship, he argued that we must not lose sight of the growing threat from climate change and soil degradation from overuse.
He posed the question: “What do we need?”, and offered the following answers: sustainable agriculture, reduced carbon emissions, creation of fair value chains linking countryside and the city, promotion of a food processing industry close to the producer, and digitalisation of agriculture in terms of both production and communication. The scientist noted that technologies such as precision agriculture, drip irrigation, minimal fertilisation etc. are already available, and the ICT revolution has already reached the rural areas of the world. Mobile phones and smartphones are already being used in Africa more than in any other region of the world for extension, banking and weather forecasts. These technologies have the potential to make rural areas “sexy” again for the younger generation,
But this is still a long way off. Nigeria's Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Andu Ogbeh recalls the “African reality", distinguished by smallholder agriculture, prices imposed by urban elites, virtually non-existent roads and dysfunctional markets. He calls on political decision-makers to speed up implementation of reforms in favour of the rural population, particularly in securing title to land and improving access to loans.
The European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Phil Hogan, wants the urban population to be more aware of the value of the rural areas, which are the source of healthy food at affordable prices. This requires improving communication between the urban and rural population, as the rural areas can be much more than just a supplier of food, e.g. as recreational living space or as a carbon sink. He also called in Berlin for faster action by politicians and implementation of reforms in rural areas, headed by better links with the cities and social infrastructure such as schools, health services and social security systems.
Morocco's Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Aziz Akhannouch, noted the importance of smaller urban centres integrated into the rural hinterland. Together with the President of the Pan-African Farmers Organisation (PAFO) Theo de Jager, the Minister does not want to lose sight of the role of large-scale agriculture in securing the food supply to urban centres. Morocco is promoting plantation farming of cash crops in particular, and is demonstrating high productivity in the agricultural sector. “We are the planting generation,” is de Jager's quote from the large scale farmers organised in PAFO.
The High Level Panel agreed that what we do need is vibrant rural areas. This requires a determined political commitment to invest in rural areas, promote technologies and focus all measures on the socio-economic environment for the rural population, and – last but not least – make rural areas “sexy” for the younger generation.
The conclusions and recommendations of the panel have been incorporated in the Berlin Agriculture Ministers' Summit Declaration.
Angelika Wilcke, editor, Rural 21