By 2050, 2.5 billion urban residents in over 1,600 cities will live in countries where one or more major crop is projected to decline

Climate change will affect cities directly, through heat waves, storm rains and rising seas, as well as indirectly due to links between cities and surrounding areas as well as between individual cities and far-flung locations across the world. Urban and rural areas are interdependent in many ways, but if there is one interdependency that affects each and every city-dweller on a daily basis it’s food.

Food production is both a driver of climate change, as well as at risk from it. Agricultural output accounts for 11 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, rising to 30 percent when food distribution and land use are included. At the same time, the agricultural sector is already dealing with impacts from climate change in the form of bigger variations in rainfall, droughts and other extreme events that make life more unpredictable for farmers and impacts agricultural output and quality. However, if global emissions don’t start to go down drastically, in line with the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting the rise in global average temperatures to 1.5oC, this agricultural instability will only be the beginning. 

With unabated emissions, The Future We Don’t Want analysis suggests that 2,5 billion people, living in over 1,600 cities, will experience declining agricultural outputs. By 2050, the yields of at least one of the big four crops – wheat, maize, rice or soy – will decline by more than 10 percent in nations where these cities are situated (see Figure 1). This decline can set off a chain-reaction that leads to increased food prices and reduced food security in many cities around the world.

Figure 1 – Agricultural decline: National Yield Decline in Maize, Rice, Soybean, and/or Wheat in the 2050s. Cities that are located in countries where national rainfed yield of maize, rice, soybean, and/or wheat is projected to decline by at least -10 percent below current levels by the 2050s.

Should crop yields decline, in line with The Future We Don’t Want projection, it will amount to a tremendous challenge for residents and local authorities. At the same time as climate change will put a dent in food production, urban populations are expected to keep rising throughout much of the world – and especially in developing countries. Estimates suggest that agricultural production will need to increase by approximately 50 percent, in order to provide sufficient food by 2050. Not decline by 10 percent. To ensure that growing cities have enough to eat in the future, it is critical that urban areas start considering their long-term food security now.

At the same time as cities have to prepare for climate shocks that affect their food supplies, cities are not passive bystanders. Urban areas influence many aspects of food systems and can change the way the systems work through their climate action strategies. To start with, cities have enormous procurement powers, which can be utilized to stimulate the market for more local and organic produce. Cities also manage large waste flows and can ensure that organic materials are composted and used as a resource. By establishing distribution hubs, that facilitate more efficient distribution, city leaders can reduce the carbon footprint of their food transports as well as guarantee better and more equal access to produce. Lastly, cities oversee urban land use for local production and can encourage more local production.

The vulnerable route from farm to table

The route from farmer to urban consumer is a long and winding one (Figure 2), and climate change impacts can disrupt any or several of these inter-dependent links. Be it crop production, transportation, processing, or retail; with resultant urban food shortages.

Figure 2 – The urban food supply network

While a large, industrial city like Paris sourced 99 percent of its vegetables locally a hundred years ago, according to Yann Françoise, the Head of Paris’ Climate and Energy Division, cities’ dependence on long supply networks is striking today. Over the last two to three decades, the amount of food being transported to cities from rural areas has risen by 300 percent in India, 800 percent in Africa, and 1000 percent in Southeast Asia. In an ever more globalised world, long supply chains are likely here to stay.

Long supply chains are not without benefits; diversification means that a city is less dependent on, or exposed to, any specific area, crop – or climate impact. But in a world where climate change will have more significant and unpredictable impacts everywhere, and where the competition over water resources, declining harvests as well as between domestic consumption and agricultural exports will increase, urban food supply systems must plan for a range of climate disruptions that can quickly lead to food shortages.

Shortages that, in turn, drive up costs which can make food staples unaffordable. The urban poor are particularly at risk from supply disruptions and subsequent impacts on food costs. Studies show that, in developing countries, extremely poor households spend between 48 to 85 percent of their income on food. Worldwide, millions of people living in cities have so low incomes that any rise in food staple prices puts their health and nutritional status at risk. Women are especially vulnerable to such shocks, not only becomes they are the poorest of the poor, representing 70 percent of the 1.3 billion global poor, but also because women are especially prone to skip meals or eat less, compared to other family members, when there is a lack of food or prices go up.

Food scarcity can also lead to conflict. When the price of staple crops like wheat, maize, and rice rose substantially between 2007 and 2008, it sparked unrest in many countries. In Bangladesh, thousands of workers rioted near Dhaka, smashing vehicles and vandalising factories, while expressing their anger at rising food prices and low wages. At the time, there were instances of protests in 15 counties across Africa, South America and Asia owing to food price hikes. In Burkina Faso, soaring prices led to riots in several parts of the country before thousands of demonstrators marched to Ouagadougou, the capital, to force the government to subsidise the cost of some cereals.

“We want to create more options for sustainable and resilient agricultural activity within the rural areas of Quito, that includes climate change criteria.” – Verónica Arias, Secretary of the Environment for Quito

Climate impacts

If climate change-related food shortages, and consequent high prices, can lead to conflict; conflict can, in turn, lead to reduced agricultural production; which happened in the Colombian city of Medellín. According to the World Economic Forum and Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security, drug related violence in the 1990s pushed rural refugees to migrate to Medellín in search of safety. This rural-urban migration contributed to the fact that 76 percent of the region’s food comes from external sources, even though 70 percent of the department of Antioquia’s territory is rural. Escaping poverty and insecurity, the migrants had to contend with settling in some of the poorest communities of the city. Neighbourhoods where there was a limited access to food and services, resulting in unstable, and frequently high prices, for low quality produce.

According to Esteban Gallego Restrepo, the technical director in Medellín’s Food Security Unit, the poorest households in the city, classified as strato 1, pay twice as much for food of the lowest quality compared to what the richest, strato 6, pay for the highest quality of produce. This inequity grows particularly stark when climate impacts, such as draughts, reduce the supply of staples goods, or flooding and mudslides disrupt production and food transports into the valley where Medellín is located. The city is therefore highly vulnerable to market fluctuations and supply-chain disruptions.

In neighbouring Ecuador, the country’s capital Quito has experienced rapid population growth since the 1990s and expanded into its surrounding valleys and hillsides. Throughout this urban expansion, services and infrastructure have had difficulties keeping up with a pattern of low-density sprawl, which has resulted in increased food scarcity in poor communities. At the same time, 85 to 90 percent of the food that is consumed in this Andean city is imported from the rest of Ecuador and beyond, informed Ms. Arias, from the Secretary of the Environment. The long food supply chains mean that food consumption accounts for 40 percent of Quito’s ecological footprint.

By improving Quito’s food security and encouraging more production in the rural areas of the Metropolitan District, Quito can achieve multiple goals. Through a focus on food, the city can reduce its environmental impact, adapt to climate change as well as improve the health, nutrition and economic prospects of its urban and rural residents. “It’s important to note that we’re not thinking only about the city, but the entire territory, surrounding the city and the correct functioning of all ecosystem and production services”, said Ms. Arias.

“We have to take everything into account … it’s not easy, we’re not sure if we can succeed everywhere; but if we talk about water we have to talk about food, we have to talk about agriculture, we have to talk about everything.” – Yann Françoise, Head of Paris’ Climate and Energy Division

Food security is not just a developing economy challenge. Across the Atlantic, in Europe, Paris is planning for a more sustainable urban food system, based on both climate mitigation and adaptation concerns, according to Mr. Françoise. Parisians may not risk going without dinner, and have sufficiently high incomes to weather significant price changes, but the city is planning for a future where Paris will have to work on many fronts to diversify its agricultural sources, as protection against climate impacts at home and across the world, as well as to reduce its dependence on external water resources. Given the increasing water usage from other French regions, alongside industry and agriculture, “we know that, in the future, the next 20-30 years, there will be competition about the water resources in the north of France”, said Mr. Françoise.

By growing more food locally, the city can weave together several policy areas by reducing the carbon footprint associated with certain agricultural practices, minimise the distance that food is transported and improve water efficiency. “We have to take everything into account,” insisted Mr. Françoise, “it’s not easy, we’re not sure if we can succeed everywhere; but if we talk about water we have to talk about food, we have to talk about agriculture, we have to talk about everything.”

Feeding our cities

By growing more food locally, the city can weave together several policy areas by reducing the carbon footprint associated with certain agricultural practices, minimise the distance that food is transported and improve water efficiency. “We have to take everything into account,” insisted Mr. Françoise, “it’s not easy, we’re not sure if we can succeed everywhere; but if we talk about water we have to talk about food, we have to talk about agriculture, we have to talk about everything.”

As the experiences of Medellín, Quito and Paris indicate, food systems interact with a range of social and economic issues, such climate mitigation, informal settlements, lacking urban infrastructure and water supplies. Food security is a global problem and climate change threatens to disrupt the status quo in cities everywhere.

Acknowledging the risks to its food supply, Medellín pioneered the development of a food security plan 20 years ago. These days, the city is focusing on sustainable and equitable rural-urban supply chains. Targeting four low-income communas, where Mr. Gallego Restrepo explained that “you find the worst conditions of the city – health, location, jobs, everything.” The local government aims to connect those neighbourhoods with poor, small-scale farmers in the surrounding department of Antioquia. The objective being to lower costs for urban consumers by 17 to 18 percent and ensure urban accessibility to high-quality food, while increasing farming income by 10 percent, by cutting out middlemen; along with improving transport. As a part of the programme, two years in the running, farmers are also receiving advice on crops and techniques; taking climate impacts into account.

New markets have been constructed in the communas, managed by local associations, and distribution centres are being established. Supply and demand are matched by, for example, using trucks that drop off consumer goods in rural areas before driving back to the city empty. To check that the programme is on track, Medellín closely monitors a wide range of metrics; developing proof that can be used to inspire similar programs in other cities. As for the long term, “we created the project but we know we are not going to be running the project the whole time,” said Mr. Gallego Restrepo, indicating that the city authorities will eventually hand over full management to the local associations.

And, who knows, maybe the programme can have wider implications as well? As Colombia is emerging from a peace process after a long internal conflict, Mr. Gallego Restrepo commented that former guerrilla fighters will need something to do. Why not supply Medellín’s communas with high quality, locally produced food and help the city improve its response to shocks at the same time?

In Quito, the city has supported both rural and urban farmers through two different programmes that promote alternative and sustainable land management approaches. AGRUPAR (Agricultura Urbana Participativa), a programme that focuses on urban farmers, aims to implement sustainable and organic practices in the city while strengthening the management skills and micro-enterprises of Quito’s urban farmers. The programme started in 2002, to give families with low incomes a chance to increase their health and nutrition, and has evolved into a tool for local economic development and urban resilience. The initiative provides seeds and seedlings, conducts technical training on agricultural production and commercialisation as well as provide free spaces within the city where local farmers, primarily women, the young and the old who are outside the formal economy, can sell their produce. AGRUPAR has helped the Quito’s small-scale agriculturalists to both increase their yields and improve their livelihoods. According to a 2016 report by AGRUPAR and Quito’s city council, the programme united about 4000 urban, peri-urban and rural farmers and generated 500,000 kilograms of annual horticultural produce.

Quito’s goal is to produce 30-40 percent of its food locally, mostly in the region’s rural areas. “We want to create more options for sustainable and resilient agricultural activity within the rural areas of Quito, that includes climate change criteria,” said Ms. Arias. To, strengthen rural and urban linkages, the city is leading on a rural project that is focused on sustainable agricultural practices and forest conservation.

As for Paris, the city’s integrated climate efforts started out with a big, year-long, survey, where local officials interviewed a long list of scientists and partners to generate a holistic understanding of the city’s strengths and vulnerabilities, according to Mr. Françoise. Now, Paris is exploring a range of policies to increase local food production, ranging from low-cost street markets for locally grown organic produce to public procurement efforts that target a sizable share of the 5 million meals that are consumed in the city every day. Through better procurement, the city can both reduce emissions as well as save public funds.

Among the food security initiatives is a plan to create 33 hectares of urban agriculture within Paris’ boundaries by 2020. As part of this effort, 5.2 hectares were presented as urban agriculture sites by the initiative Parisculteurs in 2016. Under the programme, urban farm allotments were assigned through a tendering process where people could submit their urban agriculture projects. The plan also includes 125 shared gardens that are entrusted to certain associations in order to develop social ties. It’s a small first step, but by 2050 the city wants 25 percent of its food supply to be produced in the Île-de-France region, where Paris is situated.

Climate mitigation and adaptation goes hand in hand in Paris’ approach to food security. Besides decreasing Paris’ reliance on external water sources, one climate benefit of producing more food regionally is that it reduces the supply chain’s carbon footprint. Today, food consumed in Paris travels an average distance of 600 km, 75 percent of which comes via road. However, to reduce agricultural emissions and improve the city’s resilience to climate impacts, it is necessary for Paris to work together with farmers to create mutually beneficial solutions, as well as with the national government and European Union. While nearly all of Paris’ vegetables came from the metropolitan region a hundred years ago, the figure today is a measly 2 percent. Why? Partially because it is more lucrative for the farmers of Île-de-France to grow corn and wheat for animal feed, concluded Mr. Françoise. An issue that is largely beyond the control of European city authorities.

Cities such as Medellín, Quito and Paris have taken different approaches to address their urban food security issues, based on their own unique local contexts. What they have in common is that they have started adapting to current and future climate impacts on agricultural production, often tying mitigation and adaptation policies together. By reducing emissions today, these cities ensure that they will need less climate adaptation down the line and that The Future We Don’t Want scenario with continued high emissions, worsening climate impacts and significantly declining agricultural yields doesn’t have to become reality.

The three cities’ diverse efforts exemplify the range of possibilities that urban policymakers have at hand to improve their residents’ food security in times of climate change. In a world characterised by rising temperatures, droughts, variations in precipitation and other extreme climate events that reduce crop yields, ensuring food security is a matter of health, public security and social justice. As climate impacts become more apparent, urban food systems need to become more resilient and it is up to city governments to ensure that they are.

This content is from 2018. View the full “The Future We Don’t Want” report.