Growing Solutions: Agriculture's Changing Reputation

By Nierenberg, Danielle | Harvard International Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Growing Solutions: Agriculture's Changing Reputation


Nierenberg, Danielle, Harvard International Review


At the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition's annual conference in Milan, Italy last month, nutrition, food, and agriculture experts from around the world gathered to discuss how to x the world's broken food system. Guido Barilla, President of the Barilla pasta company, talked about the need for companies and corporations to take responsibility for the food they produce--products that have the potential to nourish people, but also can cause great harm. In fact, agriculture has been blamed for the world's worst environmental and social problems--everything from deforestation and land degradation to rising greenhouse gas emissions and obesity.

But today, agriculture is changing--so is its image. Thanks to recent reports by the Barilla Center, the World Bank supported International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, and the UK Foresight Alliance, agriculture is now seen as the solution to some of the world's most pressing challenges. From sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to Europe and the United States, farmers are using agriculture to not only improve their food security and livelihoods, but they are growing and processing food in ways that contribute to environmental sustainability. Businesses, too, are changing their practices and finding ways to appeal to a customer base that is interested in knowing where its food comes from and how it is produced.

Agricultural innovations are helping farmers and consumers alike prevent the enormous amount of food waste in the world, cities are becoming centers of sustainable food production, and farming is becoming something that youth want to do, rather than something they're forced to do. These innovations that are working on the ground are changing the image of agriculture from a creator of problems to a provider of solutions.

Feeding the Cities

In 2007, for the first time in human history, more people were living in cities than in rural areas. By 2050, the United Nations estimates that up to 65 percent of the world's population will live in cities. In Africa, for example, 395 million people lived in cities in 2009, representing approximately 40 percent of the continent's total population. And at least 14 million people move to African cities each year, a migration that is second only to the massive rural to urban shift happening in China. By 2020, some 35 to 40 million Africans will depend entirely on food grown in cities to meet their daily food requirements. And in 2050 nearly 60 percent of Africa's population will be living in urban areas.

According to the United Nations' 2010-201! State of the World's Cities report, the belief that urban residents are more food secure than rural dwellers is a myth. In rural areas, access to food is determined by crop yields, while in cities, whether a family eats is determined by its income. Although there's enough food to feed every man, woman, and child alive today, the simple fact is that many people simply lack the money to buy it.

Urban agriculture is often the only way for poor urbanites living in the favelas of Rio, the barrios of Mexico City, or the slums of Accra or Hanoi to get access to fresh food. It's unknown how many city residents are actually growing, selling, and eating food that they've harvested themselves, but researchers at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Development Programme estimate that nearly a billion people worldwide are eating food grown in cities. And that number will only grow as food prices continue to rise.

Fortunately, there are no shortages of successful models of productive urban farms and these farms are often found in some unlikely places. Kibera in Kenya, for example, is the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa with roughly one million people. It's everything you imagine a slum in a developing country to be--it's extremely crowded, it's noisy, it doesn't smell very pood, and it's not a place you would expect crops to flourish. …

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