LONDON (AlertNet) - Tackling hunger is not only a question of producing more food in rural areas, but requires looking at why poor urban populations struggle to eat enough - a problem aggravated by climate change, a report from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) said on Thursday.
Policies to improve food security in developing nations tend to focus on helping farmers in the countryside grow more food, and often neglect the causes of hunger in towns and cities, the paper said.
"More than half the world’s population lives in urban centres, and urban food insecurity is an emerging challenge that is exacerbated by climate change," the IIED research said. "Although low and irregular incomes are its root cause, environmental hazards and inadequate housing and infrastructure contribute to higher levels of malnutrition in low-income settlements than in rural areas."
For example, it cited a study showing that four out of five urban households were food insecure in 11 southern African cities. And in informal settlements in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, infant and under-five mortality rates have been found to be higher than in rural areas.
Poor urban households typically spend over half their earnings on food, and any fall in income or rise in food prices - as seen in 2007-2008 - hits hard, the paper said. People eat less or skip meals, and have to work longer hours to afford food.
On top of this, many informal urban settlements are located in the most dangerous parts of town that are vulnerable to floods and landslides. As climate change brings more extreme weather, this is likely to worsen food insecurity by making people poorer and sicker.
Another problem is that slum residents often live in crowded homes with little space or equipment for storing and cooking food. They have to purchase it in small quantities, which costs more. They also shop less at supermarkets, which are cheaper but usually not located nearby. Access to land where they could grow their own food is limited for most.
FALLING THROUGH THE NET
Cecilia Tacoli, the report's author, said policymakers should try to find ways of improving poor people’s ability to access and afford food in urban areas. The paper urges more attention to incomes, living conditions, markets, and the links between rural and urban food security.
“The journey that food takes from a rural producer to an urban consumer involves many steps,” Tacoli said in a statement. “It must travel through formal and informal systems as it is stored, distributed and sold. Each one of these steps is a point of potential vulnerability to climate change. For consumers, this will mean sharp and sudden increases in food prices."
Social protection programmes such as Kenya's Hunger Safety Net, the Productive Safety Net Programme in Ethiopia and Bolsa Familia in Brazil have been successful in strengthening food security by providing more stable incomes, the paper noted. But such schemes are non-existent or insufficient in almost 80 percent of the world's poorest countries, and largely fail to reach those who live in urban slums and have no official address.
Governments should try harder to improve infrastructure, services and living conditions for the urban poor if they want to reduce the risk of climate-related disasters and rising food insecurity, the paper said. Support for transfers of food between family members split between cities and the countryside, often due to seasonal migration for work, is also important, the paper said.
“Policymakers need a far better understanding of what it means to be poor in an urban centre,” Tacoli said.