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New UN report highlights urgent need to strengthen urban and peri-urban food systems for global food security and nutrition

As urbanization continues to reshape our world, the focus on urban and peri-urban food systems becomes increasingly crucial. The latest report from the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE-FSN) of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS), titled "Strengthening urban and peri-urban food systems to achieve food security and nutrition, in the context of urbanization and rural transformation," and launched today sheds light on this critical issue.

This groundbreaking report challenges prevailing narratives: contrary to common belief that picture the rural areas as more vulnerable to food insecurity and malnutrition, it shows that over 3/4 of the world’s food insecure population are in urban and peri-urban regions; in other words, of the 2.2 billion moderately and severely food‑insecure people in the world, 1.7 billion live in urban and peri-urban areas.

"With 1.7 billion people facing food insecurity in urban and peri-urban areas, we can no longer ignore the need for targeted interventions and investments", HLPE-FSN Jane Battersby, lead author of the report, explained during the launch. "This report underscores the urgent need for specific policies to address the complexities of urban food systems and provides a roadmap for policymakers to ensure no one is left behind in our urbanizing world", she concluded.

The report presents the last available data and shows regional and spatial differences. It finds that food insecurity is higher among women than men because of differential exposure to shocks and differences in education, income, opportunities, social networks, and entitlements. 

“Over 75 percent of the food-insecure population lives in urban and peri-urban areas, relying on the market for their food rather than growing it themselves,” said Ramya Ambikapathi, co-author of the report and a Senior Research Associate in the Food Systems & Global Change program at Cornell CALS Department of Global Development. “Traditionally, the relative burden of food insecurity is higher in rural areas, but the population in these areas is much smaller. In Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, significant urbanization is occurring, leading to substantial rural-to-urban migration. This shift increases the demand for market-purchased food, water supply, housing, and other urban systems.”

Food insecurity and malnutrition in urban and peri-urban areas are found to be shaped by food systems and other systems such as housing, water, energy, sanitation, waste and transport. The report also highlights how urban and peri-urban regions are sites of innovation and economic opportunity and the epicenters of nutrition new habits: urban diets have more animal-source foods, fruits and vegetables, oils, sugar, salt, and ultra-processed foods. This dietary pattern has some advantages for urban populations (higher consumption of fruits and vegetables), but is also typified by higher consumption of oils, sugar, salt and ultra-processed food, which, combined with less physical activity, lead to an increase in overweight and obesity, including childhood obesity.

“The right to food is a fundamental human right, yet, due to socio-economic disparities, food insecurity is high and highly unequal in urban and peri-urban settings”, Akiko Suwa-Eisenmann, Chairperson of the HLPE-FSN stressed. These disparities worsened over the COVID-19 pandemic due to loss of livelihood and income, lower access to school food programs (hence, increase in demand for food within households), and a substantial increase in caregiving responsibilities competing with food systems’ activities.

Obesity prevalence has increased over the last several decades in both high-income countries and low- and middle-income countries, where it is increasing particularly rapidly and is projected that low- and middle-income countries will account for three quarters of the world's obese population by 2025. In this case also, women are found to have much higher obesity rates than men.

Key highlights of the report include:

  • Assessment of challenges: the report identifies bottlenecks in achieving food security and nutrition in urban and peri-urban areas, emphasizing the need for tailored interventions.
  • Linkages with other systems: it explores how urban and peri-urban food systems intersect with water, energy, and mobility systems, crucial for achieving food security and nutrition goals.
  • Transformation and equity: strategies for transforming urban food systems to be more equitable, accessible, sustainable, and resilient are discussed.
  • Policy recommendations: the report provides action-oriented policy recommendations aimed at policymakers to address the unique challenges of urban and peri-urban food security and nutrition.

Chapters of the report delve into various aspects, including challenges and opportunities in food system activities, governance issues, and policy instruments for change. It emphasizes the importance of multi-level governance and addressing structural inequalities.

"We've inherited food systems that are unsustainable and riddled with challenges, unfit for our communities," said Ambikapathi. "With over 6 billion people in urban and peri-urban areas, our efforts must be context-specific, addressing challenges from farm to plate to ensure everyone has access to a healthy diet."

 

A version of this story first published by HLPE-FSN.

About the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE-FSN)

The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE-FSN) is the science-policy interface of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the foremost inclusive and evidence-based international and intergovernmental platform for food security and nutrition (FSN).

The HLPE-FSN provides independent, comprehensive and evidence-based analysis and advice at the request of the CFS and elaborates studies through a scientific, transparent and inclusive process, ensuring legitimacy among stakeholders, involving broad consultations and incorporating different forms of knowledge and expertise as well as a rigorous scientific peer-review process.

HLPE-FSN is governed by a Steering Committee of 15 world-renowned scientists drawn from academia, research institutions, the public and private sectors, civil society and other constituencies. This Committee works with an extensive network of over 2 000 experts from a variety of academic disciplines.

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