Urban Agriculture is Crucial for Global Sustainability

As people around the world move from rural to urban settings in search of economic opportunities, urban agriculture is becoming an important source of both food and employment, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

The United Nations projects that up to 65% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, up from around 50% today. The rate of urban migration is particularly high in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where inadequate urban infrastructure struggles to keep up with the large influx of people. 

Currently, an estimated 800 million people worldwide are engaged in urban agriculture, producing 15%-20% of the world’s food. However, this activity occurs mainly in Asia, making it critical to place more worldwide emphasis on this vital sector.

In Africa, 14 million people migrate from rural to urban areas each year, and studies suggest that an estimated 35-40 million Africans living in cities will need to depend on urban agriculture to meet their food requirements in the future.

Worldwatch’s "Nourishing the Planet" is a two-year evaluation of environmentally sustainable agricultural innovations to alleviate hunger. Worldwatch researchers traveled to 25 countries across sub-Saharan Africa to meet with more than 350 farmers groups, NGOs, government agencies, and scientists, highlighting small-scale urban agricultural efforts that are helping to improve peoples’ livelihoods by providing them with food and income. 

Worldwatch finds that urban agriculture provides three important advantages that are evident in successful projects across the African continent:

  • Close to home (and market). Produce from urban farms and gardens does not need to travel as far as produce grown in rural areas to reach the dining table, which helps to reduce production costs, post-harvest waste, and greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also helpful in situations where supply chains from rural areas have been interrupted and cities are unable to receive food imports.
  • Empowering women and building communities. In Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya, Urban Harvest has helped women build "vertical farms" simply by using sacks of soil in which to grow vegetables. Women share business ideas and technical know-how, empowering each other. Community gardens also act as a forum where community members can exchange ideas and discuss community issues and problems. 
  • Improving urban environments. Faced with limited resources, urban farmers are adept at using urban waste streams to strengthen their soil and grow their crops. Garbage is used as compost or fodder for livestock, and nutrient-rich waste water is used for irrigation. By re-using these waste products, urban farms help to reduce the amount of refuse clogging landfills as well as the amount of water used in cities. Community gardens also provide an aesthetically pleasing space and help improve the air quality in urban areas.

"Urban agriculture is an important aspect of the development movement as it has the potential to address some of our most pressing challenges, including food insecurity, income generation, waste disposal, gender inequality, and urban insecurity" says Nancy Karanja, a Professor at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, and a contributing author to WorldWatch’s State of the World 2011 report.

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