Strengthening the Food Security of Rapidly Growing Asian Cities

Sunday, February 14, 2016: 3:00 PM-4:30 PM
Coolidge (Marriott Wardman Park)
Peter Edwards, ETH Zürich, Singapore-ETH Center for Global Environmental Sustainability, Singapore, Singapore
Asia is in a phase of extraordinary urbanization. Between 1970 and 2015 the urban population of Asia grew from around 600 million to 2 billion, and projections suggest that it will grow by a further 1.3 billion by 2050. The initial drivers included both rapid population growth and great increases in crop yields due to the introduction of modern technologies. The ‘green revolution’ affected livelihoods of many millions of people in the densely populated rice-growing regions of Asia, which explains why the scale of urbanization in this region far exceeds that on any other continent. More recently, urbanization itself has become a powerful driver of further structural change in agricultural systems.

As a result of these changes, traditional agricultural systems – many of which had evolved a high degree of resilience - are being replaced by much more productive systems that are out of balance with the natural environment. In this talk, I consider some of the ways in which rapid urbanization threatens the resilience of food systems in the Asian region. These include (1) the loss of ecosystem services provided by traditional agricultural landscapes, especially in rice-growing areas, (2) the opening of nutrient cycles as food is produced in rural areas yet consumed mainly in cities, (3) the overuse of fertilizers, which is causing severe environmental problems in China and elsewhere, (4) increasing land requirements for food production due to changing diets and declining landuse intensity, and (5) the predicament of the new urban poor, who cannot afford to purchase enough food and are unable to grow their own.

Many of these problems tend to be less severe where urbanization takes the form of small to middle sized cities rather than of megacities, and solutions are needed that help maintain the traditionally diffuse boundaries between the urban and rural in rice-growing regions and prevent very large agglomerations from forming. This can be done by promoting distributed networks of urban areas in close contact with the rural. Modern decentralizing technologies offer great opportunities to improve the livelihoods of people in a rural setting while allowing them to participate in the urban economy. Perhaps the most important of these is broadband, which can contribute to modernizing agriculture, reducing poverty and improving educational levels. However, there are also many other opportunities for strengthening rural economies and the resilience of food systems through innovations such as new cropping systems, aeroponics and fish farming.