Feeding A Hungry Urban World

Co-authored by Doug Bereuter

It's time to update what we know about global food security. Those familiar with the dialogue will know that the year 2050 marks an important threshold. By then, the planet will have swollen to nine billion people, and we'll have to dramatically increase food production in order to feed them. Some numbers that may be less familiar are these: by that same year, Africa's population will be 56% urban, up from 40% now. In Asia, we'll see a similar rise from 48% today to 64%. Here's another, perhaps more shocking figure: One trillion dollars. That's the estimated value by 2030 for the African agriculture and food sector. For a continent that is often not associated with prosperity, American agricultural producers and businesses will find significant opportunities due to rising demand for U.S. products, know-how, and services.

These things are linked. By 2050, an additional 2.5 billion people will live in urban areas. With larger urban populations comes changing food demand: higher quality and more diversity. It also puts pressure on supply chains, which are often weak and undeveloped in emerging economies. And it both creates opportunities and introduces new risk for small-scale farmers and rural workers.

If we make smart investments now, this rapid increase in market demand can be a good news story for raising the production and incomes for small-scale farmers - an important goal given that economic growth is not always inclusive of more vulnerable actors. But at the same time, we must build safe, efficient, and sustainable supply chains to deliver this food to the rising demand in cities.

To build the plane while we're flying it, so to speak, it will take bold alliances between the public and private sector.

The U.S. government has shown visionary leadership on global food security, particularly over the past decade, and the emerging data shows that the investment is paying off. Incomes are rising and rates of child stunting, which has debilitating lifetime effects, are going down in many of the areas where the U.S. government has invested. Through programs supported under USAID's Feed the Future, investments are already being made to support national governments and help prepare farmers to meet the food demands of increasingly large numbers of city dwellers. The Global Food Security Act of 2015, which would support the continuation of work begun under this effort, has passed both chambers with bipartisan support. The Electrify Africa Act of 2015, doubles access to power in Sub-Saharan Africa, and was passed into law with bipartisan support. With increased access to power, new possibilities open up to develop food processing and develop the cold-chain that could transport perishable foods. Congress has truly exerted global leadership through bipartisan cooperation on these issues and their efforts are laudable.

However, this is not the time to take a victory lap. Now is the time to double down on leveraging US agriculture expertise, innovation, and capacity for research and development to meet these upcoming food and nutrition challenges.

The private sector, in particular, must play a huge role in future efforts - and their investments will need to greatly outweigh public funding to address problems. So too can the government use its natural strengths of coordinating programs and enabling the private sector to mobilize and reduce risk. A new report on global food security by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs recommends the US lead in both these sectors to be on the cutting edge of policies that enable, enhance, and incentivize private sector investments and partnerships with small-scale farmers to facilitate inclusive supply chain development. This can include enhancing trade capacity and cross-border facilitation for food items in developing regions and increasing development financing to leverage private sector investment targeting food systems.

USAID has dozens of innovative examples of successfully coordinating with the private sector. In Senegal, USAID partnered with a small local enterprise Son Brahim Fall, which in turn partnered with another local equipment leasing company to offer harvesting services to small-scale rice farmers. This allowed the farmers get access to a much-needed service and strengthened local businesses, a multiplier effect for reducing poverty down the road.

Now is the time to scale up these investments. Now is the time to insist that the reshaping of food systems around urban populations develop with the participation of smallholder farmers, those who are among the poorest and most vulnerable. Given the scale of the job ahead, there is opportunity to be seized by those that recognize and anticipate the business and human potential of rising urban demand.

Doug Bereuter served in the House from 1979 to 2004. He is president emeritus of the Asia Foundation. Dan Glickman served in the House from 1977 to 1995. He was secretary of Agriculture from 1995 to 2001. The two are co-chairs of the Global Agricultural Development Initiative at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a non-partisan Chicago-based think tank, and co-chaired the Chicago Council 2016 annual global food security report, Growing Food for Growing Cities which was released on April 25, 2016 and can be found here.