Agricultural Livelihoods

Why cities cannot achieve resilient food systems without a thriving countryside

AGRF 2020 Summit

Author: Elton Mudyazvivi, programme manager of our agricultural livelihoods portfolio

In Africa, and in other regions facing rapid urbanisation, feeding growing cities is becoming an increasing challenge. While often not taken into the discussion, the countryside plays a key role in meeting the growing demand for food and other resources in cities. The countryside—where many urban residents originate from because rural areas did not offer the services and support, they needed for a sustainable livelihood—should not end up last in policymakers’ list of priorities. If we envision resilient and sustainable food systems, we cannot feed cities through what Gilbert F. Houngbo, the IFAD president, once described as “impoverishment and neglect of rural areas”. 

We know that our ability to sustainably feed growing cities depends on our ability to create a thriving, resilient countryside. Yet we do not always reflect on how city-countryside relationships affect our food systems and sustainable growth, and how they are all too often underestimated and underutilised. This is a seriously missed opportunity and limits the returns we could get from our investments in cities.

Why should we reconsider the relationship between cities and countryside?

The UN estimates that 68% of the world will be living in cities by 2050. Meeting the growing demand for food in cities means the countryside has to step up production. Aside from the need for a more plant-based, diverse, and nutritious diet, there are some serious issues to address in this production question. We have seen that, in many instances, production comes at a huge cost to soils, biodiversity and ecosystems. We know that in the past, growth in African agriculture has mainly been achieved from land expansion. That trend poses a risk of depleting natural ecosystems in the countryside.

Now we are looking at ways to responsibly expand production, but the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) cautions that agriculture intensification, if done incorrectly, depletes soils and pollutes ground water. There is growing evidence that healthy soil is essential to grow healthy crops, increase food productivity, and even sequester carbon to mitigate climate change. Therefore, if we continue to expand farmlands and don’t apply the right techniques, we will degrade the countryside and turn it into desert. Then we can no longer grow crops, we face water scarcity, and we diminish livelihoods in both cities and the countryside.

Populations in African cities are growing fast, driven by rural-urban migration of mostly young people in search of opportunities. They leave behind an ageing farmer community, averaging 60 years old, which threatens the future of small, family farms that provide livelihoods to 60% of Africans. But there is a way out.

Towards a new vision

What if we develop diversified food chains based on regenerative land use and vibrant, local, circular food systems, capable of providing job opportunities for our youth while feeding our growing cities with diverse, nutritious and locally grown foods?

In order to do so, we need to reflect on the interdependency of the city and countryside and let city-dwellers re-evaluate their relationship with the countryside. Right in the heart of metropolitan New York City, there is an initiative that does just that. The exhibition Countryside, The Future challenges its mostly urban visitors to reflect on radical changes in the countryside. In a sense, the exhibition is showing the immense potential the countryside offers if we value and nurture it in the same way we do our cities.

So as Africa focuses on developing resilient food systems for its growing cities at the 2020 AGRF summit, we cannot forget the importance of the countryside for nourishing people and the planet. We hope decisionmakers at AGRF will take this opportunity to reflect on our relationship with the countryside and its role in sustainable development. 

If you want to hear more about the vision for Africa’s food systems, then sign up to the AGRF.

Special items

Read Petra Hans’s op ed on our website. Petra leads our Agricultural Livelihoods portfolio.

Watch a special Ask an Expert session for AGRF on the future of the countryside with architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas from OMA/AMO: