Columnist: Cities And Food: Quandary, Opportunity

In the next 40 years, the world will need to produce as much food as it's produced over all of human history. Across the planet, hundreds of millions of people go to bed hungry every night -- and more and more of them live in cities.

Tackling those awesome issues requires rare smarts and ingenuity. But earlier this month, I watched an earnest try at a "Feeding Cities" conference put on the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Urban Research, backed by Rockefeller Foundation funding.

Cities themselves set up the problem. They're growing, both in population and the land they consume, at amazing speed, devouring often-fertile farmlands on their periphery. Their food demands are requiring a dramatic expansion of farmed territory. Drawn by the hope of better incomes, youth are moving to the cities, leaving agriculture to large-scale, intensive, corporate-driven farming systems and food distribution channels.

And on top of all those trends, Heather Grady of the Rockefeller Foundation noted in a keynote address, there is climate change -- triggering either extreme heat or excessive rainfall, thus either drought or floods. One likely impact: price spikes, hitting first the poor who spend a large portion of their income on food.

Cities can try to toughen themselves, Grady said, by assembling disaster emergency funds and preparing themselves for "rapid rebound" -- strengthening their infrastructure, building their resilience.

But they can also gird themselves for the future, the Penn conferees stressed, by reserving land for agriculture, either within their borders or in their surrounding regions. Joan Clos, executive director of U.N.-HABITAT, suggested there is a clear alternative to heavy reliance on distant food supply chains:

"We should shorten the distance and create a kind of a cycle -- the energy the city produces, the relationship with the land. If rural land nearby is well preserved, it has a huge advantage for the city -- it can provide food, it can drain water, it can serve as a city edge to prevent sprawl."

That means, Grady said, slowing conversion of farmlands to built-up and often paved-over, thus water-impermeable, land: "This benefits health and nutrition; it also permits safe failure on the flooding front. Food buffer and flood buffer -- two public goods are enhanced."

The barriers to a fruitful city-rural connection are huge: Around many of today's developing world cities, farmland is falling either to a helter-skelter mix of spontaneous, totally unplanned slum settlements, or to such uses as golf courses and gated communities. Fending off powerful business or political forces to preserve agricultural lands will be a tough struggle.

Another battle worth waging, said the Philadelphia conferees, is to reduce the egregious waste that's plaguing food systems worldwide. Food loss and waste per person in the United States have been estimated at a world-leading 650 pounds a person a year. Explanations range from careless farming to inefficient food processing to retail stories simply discarding foodstuffs that are past their sell-by dates. "In richer countries, we throw away as much food per capita as people in many parts of the world have to eat," Grady noted.The problem in the developing world is different but just as serious -- about 40 percent of harvests rot between farm and market because of improper storage and protection against storms and extreme temperatures. "If we got rid of waste in the food process, we could go a long way toward feeding the 9 billion people" likely to be on Earth in 2050, Barbara Burlingame of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization noted.

But there's also a joy to local foods and greater self-sufficiency -- a theme underscored by Drew Becher, president of the nearly 190-year-old Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which encourages and works closely with about 270 community gardens across the Philadelphia area.

The society, which hosts the world's largest indoor flower show each spring, is now showing how to integrate vegetables into attractive garden settings. The embracing idea, Becher said, is to create social networks, opportunities for physical exercise, "outdoor classrooms for hands-on learning."

Which can be a source of exuberant fun, Indonesian architect Ridwan Kamil told the Penn gathering. Dismayed that Jakarta looked too drab, he used Twitter to suggest barren spaces between buildings be made into vegetable gardens. Young people responded in droves, creating a wave of community gardens, the new gardeners eating their own produce and selling it to nearby markets and restaurants.

"We choose a vegetable of the month, then have a once-a-month festival and invite the musical and cooking communities to interact," said Kamil. "We cook live, very fresh. The music community helps the mood."

To date, city-produced foods account for a tiny share of urban food needs. But one is led to wonder: If city food demand is a top 21st-century concern, perhaps city ingenuity -- and spirit -- can also help to forge answers.

Neal Peirce's email address is

(c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.