The missing link in the New Urban Agenda: Food systems

Nutrition and agriculture as key parts of integrated urban-rural development are almost completely absent from the Habitat III discussions.

A farmer harvests sorghum in Sudan. (Fred Noy/UN Photo)

In cities, towns and rural communities alike, all must be fed to survive, and those with the means have two or three meals a day. The right to food cannot be separated from the right to housing, adequate water and sanitation, decent employment and all the other rights related to a life of dignity. In rural and smaller communities, it is fairly easy to see how people are fed or go hungry; the larger the community, however, the more difficult it is to comprehend the food system.

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Significant attention has been paid to many issues that will be part of this year’s Habitat III conference on cities as well as the global urbanization strategy that will come out of it, the New Urban Agenda. But there has been a notable lack of reference to food, nutrition and the provisioning challenges to urban sustainability in the preparations for the conference, despite the fact that many key urban issues — housing, transportation, infrastructure, health, ecosystem resilience, urban-rural linkages, territorial development and spatial planning — have important food-system and rural components. Compared to Habitat I and II, there is a marked overemphasis in the Habitat III preparations on the urban with inadequate reference to the rural.

[See: The New Urban Agenda’s rural-urban conundrum]

As recently as last year, officials in several of the world’s richest megacities admitted they did not understand how their own cities are fed. Food-provisioning systems in sprawling metropolises include both formal and informal markets, layers of intermediary marketers, distributors and processors. In turn, this creates webs of transactions between producers and consumers. These systems are not only poorly understood by local or regional governments, but often there is no policy mandate, jurisdiction or technical capacity by which to manage these systems — problems that affect both developing and developed nations.

Yet shocks to the food system — such as the emptying of food shelves in cities that suffer an environmental or violent crisis, or a global economic shock such as the food-price crisis in 2007-08 that led to riots in many capitals — has forced some local governments to rethink how their food systems are managed and by whom.

Another set of pressures on municipal health and social services has come in the rise of chronic non-communicative diseases such as obesity and diabetes. At first limited to cities in wealthy countries, these diseases have now become epidemic in both urban and rural areas, in rich and poor countries. To a great extent, this trend has been powered by food systems, as the consumption of processed, low-nutrient, high-fat and high-sodium foods has increased, especially among the poor.

As a result of food-system shocks, the increasing “double burden” of hunger and malnutrition in cities, and the rise of new socio-political food movements in many places, municipal and regional governments have begun to pay more attention to food and nutrition. The challenges are at once social, environmental and economic; the most effective solutions often require a cross-agency, multi-sector and systems approach. (For a good overview on these and related issues, see here.)

“Compared to Habitat I and II, there is a marked overemphasis in the Habitat III preparations on the urban with inadequate reference to the rural.”

In this, governments are often not the first responders. Rather, they follow the lead and example of community organizations, social movements, NGOs and social entrepreneurs — chefs, clinics, community kitchens, food banks, and urban and peri-urban food producers, among others. Yet innovative and systemic solutions at local and regional levels have barely risen to international or even national attention.

[See: We can’t build better cities without improving nutrition]

To a great extent, this is a structural problem. National ministries are often siloed by mandates that separate food into the rural (for instance, agricultural ministries) or urban (social development, health and education ministries). Such a set-up divides food from cities, rural from urban.

International agencies are similarly divided by rural and urban mandates. It is rare for mayors to have direct relationships with agricultural ministers. International and national policy addressing food and nutrition is often divided between issues framed as “rural” (agriculture) and “urban” (food).

But this false divide is hopefully about to change, as mayors and private and civil-society actors are today taking up food policy as a priority. See, for example, the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact which has already been signed by nearly 120 cities around the world.

Meanwhile, the process toward Habitat III and negotiating the New Urban Agenda likewise offers a key opportunity in this regard. As yet, however, this opportunity isn’t being taken.

Renewed approaches

The 40-year discourse that has followed the first Habitat conference, which took place in Vancouver in 1976, has recognized that human rights are the essential foundation for the production of secure and sustainable human habitat. As the third conference comes to Quito in October, there will be an effort to redress and strengthen this rights framework.

In order to allow for a true transformation to sustainable urban food systems, a number of critical rights must be realized. For instance, as more discussions take place around what’s called the right to the city — which bundles the right to food and nutrition with rights to water, health, adequate housing, education, work, social security, information and participation in public affairs — these should also include the right to secure tenure of land and farmer-specific rights. The intersection of rights related to access to food and nutrition, land tenure and food production is an important aspect of a new vision for integrated territorial development.

The current international discourse on rural-urban linkages has been animated by these new developments. But in the debate around the New Urban Agenda, food, nutrition and agriculture are barely mentioned.

Still, there is a possibility that a new approach to the urban-rural relationship — one that is more inclusive, balanced and equitable — will be part of the New Urban Agenda. See, for instance, Principle 5 of “The City We Need 2.0”, the recently released global stakeholder vision for Habitat III, which calls for “cohesive territorial development”. Similar sentiment can be found in a formal Habitat III technical paper released in February, “Urban Spatial Strategies, Land Markets and Segregation”, part of the series of expert “policy unit” papers that will inform the drafting of the New Urban Agenda.

[See: The challenges of land and inclusion for the New Urban Agenda]

Other momentum could be coming from national governments. For instance, among the countries most committed to the implementation of the newly agreed Sustainable Development Goals in an integrated territorial approach are some that also see the importance of a new narrative on integrated territorial development in the New Urban Agenda.

Even a New Urban Agenda that simply identifies integrated urban and rural spaces as functional territories would be an important policy achievement. This would be especially crucial for the small towns and intermediate-sized cities that are surrounded by the majority of the world’s productive rural land — combined urban and rural spaces include 75 percent of the world’s population and the majority of the world’s agriculture. Inevitably, food systems will be at the heart of any integrated urban-rural development.

[See: The New Urban Agenda must recognize the importance of intermediary cities]

Finally, any new policy calling for integrated territorial development will have to be accompanied by implementation guidance on enabling national legislation, inclusive planning across urban and rural governments, and institutional capacity-building. Already, governance models are beginning to deliver inclusive and integrated territorial development. As these continue to emerge, research is underway to identify good governance and planning practices that are multi-actor and multi-sector, and which align city, territorial and national policy.

Efforts to frame the new narrative on inclusive, balanced and integrated territorial development are expected in negotiations over the first draft of the New Urban Agenda, set to be released in early May. If such a narrative is not in that first draft, member states will need to include integrated territorial development and food systems in the call for national urban policies, spatial strategies, environmental protection and climate change, governance and financing.

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Thomas Forster

Thomas Forster is a senior fellow with EcoAgriculture Partners, which is a member of the City Region Food Systems Alliance. For more technical contributions to the New Urban Agenda on these issues, see EcoAgriculture Partners’ response to the Habitat III Framework Policy Paper 6.