There are over 285,000,000 people living in the United States. Of that population, less than 1% claim farming as an occupation (and about 2% actually live on farms). There are only about 960,000 persons claiming farming as their principal occupation and a similar number of farmers claiming some other principal occupation. The number of farms in the U.S. stands at about two million.
What is a farm?
For the purposes of the U.S. Census, a farm is any establishment which produced and sold, or normally would have produced and sold, $1,000 or more of agricultural products during the year. (Government subsidies are included in sales.) By that definition, there are just over 2.1 million farms in the United States.
There are more people locked up in prisons in the U.S. than there are farmers.
The farming population is broken-up into two or more categories. There are farm owners, as well as their children. And there are farm workers. Perhaps quite a number of farm owners made the transition to farm workers, as farm mangers, invoved in managing the machinery and production of a modern farm. But what would seem to be increasingly the most significant group of farm workers are migrant laborers. It seems unlikely that if as a nation, America, that is, we are unwilling to manage migrant laboring activity that we would be able to measure such activity and properly present a number such as two percent without explanation as to how such figure is derived. If two percent were representing the whole working population, then perhaps the number of farm owners and full-time farm managers, what comes to mind when we think of the word, "farmer, is perhaps a quarter of a percent of the U.S. population, rather than two percent. Conversely, pehaps 16% of people in America are quietly engaged in farm labor, by this same possibly broken measure.
It has been estimated that living expenses for the average farm family exceed $47,000 per year. Clearly, many farms that meet the U.S. Census' definition would not produce sufficient income to meet farm family living expenses. In fact, fewer than 1 in 4 of the farms in this country produce gross revenues in excess of $50,000.
According to the 1997 Census of Agriculture, the vast majority of farms in this country (90%) are owned and operated by individuals or families. The next largest category of ownership is partnerships (6%). The “Corporate” farms account for only 3% of U.S. farms and 90% of those are family owned. However, the term “family farm” does not necessarily equate with “small farm”; nor does a “corporate farm” necessarily mean a large-scale operation owned and operated by a multi-national corporation. Many of the country’s largest agricultural enterprises are family owned. Likewise, many farm families have formed modest-sized corporations to take advantage of legal and accounting benefits of that type of business enterprise.
In spite of the predominance of family farms, there is strong evidence of a trend toward concentration in agricultural production. By 1997, a mere 46,000of the two million farms in this country accounted for 50% of sales of agricultural products (USDA, 1997 Census of Agriculture data). That number was down from almost 62,000 in 1992.
In 1935, the number of farms in the United States peaked at 6.8 million as the population edged over 127 million citizens. As the number of farmers has declined, the demand for agricultural products has increased. This increased demand has been met (and exceeded) with the aid of large-scale mechanization (the use of large, productive pieces of farm equipment), improved crop varieties, commercial fertilizers, and pesticides. The need for human labor has also declined as evidenced by the increase in agricultural labor efficiency – from 27.5 acres/worker in 1890 to 740 acres/worker in 1990 (Illinois data; Hunt, 2001).
As the U.S. farm population has dwindled, the average age of farmers continues to rise. In fact, about forty percent of the farmers in this country are 55 years old or older (Bureau of Labor Statistics). The graying of the farm population has led to concerns about the long-term health of family farms as an American institution.
So, back to the question of what is a farm. According to Ross Korves, Deputy Chief Economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, there are eight types of farms in the United States that can be grouped into two categories:
Small Family Farms (sales less than $250,000)
Retirement farms - Small farms whose operators report they are retired (excludes limited-resource farms operated by retired farmers).
Residential/lifestyle farms - Small farms whose operators report a major occupation other than farming (excludes limited resource farms).
Limited-resource farms - Any small farm with: gross sales less than $100,000, total farm assets less than $150,000, and total operator household income less than $20,000.
Farming occupation/lower-sales farms - Small farms with sales less than $100,000 whose operators report farming as their major occupation (excludes limited-resource farms whose operators report farming as their major occupation).
Farming occupation/higher-sales farms - Small farms with sales between $100,000 and $249,000 whose operators report farming as their major occupation.
Large family farms – Farms with sales between $250,000 and $499,999.
Very large family farms – Farms with sales of $500,000 or more.
Non-family farms – Farms organized as non-family corporations or cooperatives, as well as farms operated by hired managers.
Based on these definitions of farm types, the number of farms within each type is shown in the following table:
Number of Farms
Percent of Farms
|Farming Sales > $500,000|
|Farming Sales $250,000 - $499,999|
|Farming Sales $100,000 - $249,999|
|Farming Sales < $100,000|
Given the different types of farms described above, it is easy to see that there is a wide variation in what constitutes a farm in the United States. Any criterion for declaring a farm small or large, viable or otherwise is open to debate. When asked the question, “How large would a crop and livestock operation have to be to be considered economically viable for the long term?” a group of Purdue University agricultural economists offered the following response in 2002:
An economically viable crop/livestock operation in the Corn Belt would have between 2,000 and 3,000 acres of row crops and between 500 and 600 sows.
There is a crisis in today's farm!
Glamorous excess is a staple of the mainstream media, even in its economic reporting. Stories about soaring corporate profits, exorbitant CEO salaries, improbably high stock prices, and the billions made by obscure dot-com start-ups so dominate the news that one could easily believe the globalised economy is making everyone (else) rich. But high-flying winners are the exception in today's economic casino, and no-one is losing out more than small farmers.
In country after country, farmers are said to be in 'crisis', a word that only hints at the devastation besetting rural communities. In Europe 200,000 farmers and 600,000 beef producers gave up agriculture in 1999. UK farm income has dropped by as much as 75 percent over the past two years, driving more than 20,000 farmers from the land. British farmgate prices for virtually every commodity — including beef, lamb, milk, pork, chicken, eggs, oilseed rape, fruit and vegetables — are so low that farmers are getting less for them than they cost to produce.
American farmers are doing no better. Farm income declined by nearly half between 1996 and 1999, with farmgate prices so low at the end of 1998 that pork was selling for barely one-quarter of the farmer's break-even price. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that this year's price for major commodities like cotton and soybeans will be the lowest in more than 25 years. With elections looming, even politicians are taking notice: Vice President Al Gore admits it's "the worst crisis our farmers have ever experienced.... The whole farm sector of our economy is on the verge of absolute bankruptcy." This economic disaster is translating directly into human suffering: suicide is now the leading cause of death among American farmers, occurring at a rate three times higher than in the general population.
Since farmers and farm workers are the economic linchpins of their communities, entire rural economies are in decline. In the UK, for instance, 90 percent of rural businesses were forced to lay off staff last year. Rural economies in the US also depend heavily on farmers: when 235,000 farms failed during America's mid-1980s farm crisis, 60,000 other rural businesses went down with them.
Statistics like these represent an acceleration of trends that have been underway for generations. In the North, where rural populations have been declining since the end of World War II, villages and small towns are being sapped of vitality, and many of their social and economic institutions are simply disappearing. Today, four out of ten parishes in rural England have no shop or post office, six out of ten no primary school, and three-quarters no bus service or health clinic. In the US, where only 1.5 percent of the population still lives on farms or ranches, it is not unusual to find places like McPherson County in Nebraska, which has lost two-thirds of its population — as well as 19 post offices, 58 school districts, and three entire towns — since 1920.
If rural communities in the industrialised world are under siege, their counterparts in the South may be even worse off. In China, for example, the modernisation of agriculture has already led to the uprooting of more than half the rural population in the last two decades. In the coming years, economic forces will pull so many Chinese from their villages that 600 new cities will be required to handle the rural exodus, according to China's Vice Minister of Construction.
The global economy has been equally ruthless with farmers in other parts of the South. Pastoralists in West Africa have been displaced by cheap meat imports from Europe, while Indian farmers that grow traditional oilseeds like sesame, linseed, and mustard are being driven under by soya imported from America. Mexican beef producers are losing ground to US producers, whose inroads into Mexico's markets have tripled since NAFTA was ratified. In Ladakh, a region in which 90 percent of the population is in agriculture, traditional barley staples are being displaced by Punjabi wheat and rice trucked over the Himalayas. One Ladakhi farmer wondered "what will happen in the future, now things are changing so much? Will we need farmers or won't we?"
It is not surprising that farmers, connected as they are to an immobile landscape, suffer in a globalised economy that subsidises mobility and rewards those with no allegiance to place. Today's economic 'winners' include investors who scour the planet for the highest return, moving capital from country to country at electronic speeds; corporate middlemen who make use of subsidies, currency swings, and 'free trade' agreements to profit by transporting everyday needs — including food — many thousands of miles; and transnational corporations that locate wherever they are offered tax breaks, cheap labour, and lax environmental and workplace rules — and then move on when a better deal is offered elsewhere.
Farmers, however, can't simply pull up stakes and move their farm. (The exception, of course, is the factory farm: more factory than farm, it is in no way rooted to the soil.) Once they are hooked into the global economy, farmers are easily victimised by an economic and technological juggernaut that systematically destroys the smallest and most localised enterprises. Nonetheless, the precise aim of agricultural policy almost everywhere is to pull farmers into an export-led global economy that is likely to be their undoing.
Expressions of concern over the plight of farmers notwithstanding, most policymakers are so wedded to their economic assumptions that they are unable to acknowledge how disastrous the globalisation of food has been for rural communities. US Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, for example, casts about for some 'natural' explanation for the plight of farmers: "It's almost like all the plagues of the world have hit these people.... natural disasters, floods, droughts... a fungus, a disease...". UK Agriculture Minister Nick Brown, on the other hand, blamed farmers themselves for a price drop last year that left lambs so valueless that some producers were abandoning them at animal shelters.
Even when the negative impact of the global economy is acknowledged, policymakers perversely prescribe more of the same as a remedy: they call for expanded export markets, lower trade barriers (particularly in other countries), improved 'productivity' through higher technology, and — in a rare moment of honesty — fewer farmers.
What the framers of farm policy must know, however, is that the very structure of today's global economy is fatal for the small farmer. Not so long ago, each region offered numerous economic niches for small, diversified farms, which provided the wide range of products nearby consumers needed. The globalisation of food, on the other hand, impels every region to specialise in whichever commodity its farmers can produce most cheaply, and to offer those products on global markets. All foods consumed locally, meanwhile, must be brought in from elsewhere.
The highly specialised farms this system favours are most 'efficient' when they are large, monocultural, and employ heavy machinery. Attaining the scale needed and the equipment required can drain the capital reserves of all but the biggest farmers, saddling the rest with a debt burden few can escape. Eventually, small farms are driven under, their lands consolidated into those of the largest and wealthiest farmers.
What's more, monocultural production leaves crops highly prone to devastation by pests and diseases. In 1970, for example, a blight spread quickly through America's vast maize monocultures, destroying more than 10 million acres of corn. To keep unstable monocultures like that alive, massive inputs of chemicals pesticides and herbicides must be deployed. Along with their environmental and human health effects, these off-farm inputs siphon away a large portion of the farmer's income.
The continual need to purchase the latest equipment, the most potent chemical inputs, and the highest-yielding seeds places farmers firmly on the 'technological treadmill'. Advances in technology may raise single-crop yields, but it often lowers the farmer's net income: capital expenses, debt service, and production costs eat up a higher proportion of the farmer's proceeds, while overall increases in output merely cause the price of global commodities to drop. In the US, for example, factory farming techniques — including carefully controlled heating and lighting, specially-formulated feed, and heavy doses of antibiotics — enable the average poultry producer to raise 240,000 birds each year; but after expenses this prodigious (and inhumane) production earns the farmer only $12,000, or five cents per bird. Such technological 'advances' typically do nothing to help farmers, but are boon to the manufacturers and marketers of the technologies.
Meanwhile, the global economy's emphasis on 'free trade' often forces farmers into competition with producers in countries where costs are lower due to more favourable climate and geography, lower labour costs, or less stringent environmental standards. Farmers are pressured to become still more 'efficient' by increasing the size of their farms, becoming more narrowly specialised, and adopting newer technologies. The treadmill speeds up, and farmers inevitably fall further behind.
Dependence on international export markets also leaves farmers vulnerable to losses from exchange rate fluctuations and economic slowdowns in distant parts of the world. The immediate causes of Britain's current farm crisis, for example, include the relatively strong pound, which allowed imports to flood the country at prices below the British farmer's cost of production, while diminishing the foreign demand for British agricultural products. And in the United States, nearly one billion bushels of grain — half the nation's harvest — found no market in 1999, largely because the Asian economic slowdown reduced the demand for US farm exports.
Farmers in the South face similar problems. Those still embedded in a local economy can feed their families with their diversified production, selling the remainder in local markets. But those who have been drawn into the global food system must specialise their production for export, using the income to buy food. A farmer in South America or Africa can easily be destroyed by a recession in Europe or a bigger-than-expected harvest in Asia — events over which they have absolutely no control. Meanwhile an increasing proportion of the newly-'modernised' farmer's proceeds must be used to pay for equipment and inputs, placing them, as well, on the technological treadmill. The smallest, least capitalised farmers cannot afford those inputs, and are eventually pushed out of agriculture altogether.
Another detrimental effect of the globalisation of food is the immense power global corporations have accumulated. The marketing of food to consumers, for example, has increasingly shifted from independent shopkeepers rooted in a community, to huge supermarket chains whose virtually identical outlets colonise rural economies. In the UK, each out-of-town retail development built by 1992 corresponded with the closing of roughly 10 independent shops in villages and high streets. During the 1990s, some 1,000 locally-owned food shops — grocers, bakers, butchers and fishmongers — closed each year. In Italy, the story has been the same: the arrival of superstores known as ipermarcati have resulted in the demise of 370,000 small, family-run businesses — including half of the country's corner groceries — since 1991.
Overall, food corporations are taking an ever-increasing share of the price people pay for food, while the farmers' share keeps shrinking. In the UK, for instance, the food and catering retail price index has risen 50 percent since 1987, while the price that farmers receive has actually dropped by 3 percent. In the US, only 21 cents of every dollar spent on domestically produced food goes to farmers, while the remaining 79 cents goes to corporate middlemen and marketers.
Vertically-integrated corporations now monopolise almost every aspect of farm production and distribution — from seeds, fertilisers, and equipment, to processing, transporting, and marketing. Through its ownership of grain elevators, rail links, terminals, and the barges and ships needed to move grain around the world, one company, Cargill, controls 80% percent of global grain distribution. Four other companies control 87% of American beef, and another four control 84% of American cereal. Five agribusinesses (AstraZeneca, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis and Aventis) account for nearly two-thirds of the global pesticide market, almost one-quarter of the global seed market, and virtually 100% of the transgenic seed market. Control over food has become so concentrated that in the US, 10 cents out of every food dollar now goes to one corporation, Philip Morris; another 6 cents goes to Cargill.
With corporations firmly in control, farmers hooked to the global economy have been reduced to little more than serfs in a corporate feudal system. This metaphor is nowhere more appropriate than in the US hog and poultry industries, where Continental, ConAgra, and Tyson effectively dictate the prices farmers will receive. According to Joel Dyer, author of Harvest of Rage, farmers find it impossible to raise hogs or poultry without agreeing to "terms that are the equivalent of the farmer becoming a hired hand on his own land":
"Many hog and poultry farmers no longer own any animals. The farmers get the chicks and hogs from the multinationals. Even the grain the animals are fed is provided by the company. At the end of the season, the full-grown animals are trucked to the company's processing plants where they're weighed. After rating each farmer's performance in pounds, the company deducts its charges for the chicks or hogs, feed, transportation, and any other services or products it supplied, such as propane to heat the buildings. If there's anything left over, the farmer is compensated. The only thing that the company allows the farmer to own are the heavily-indebted buildings and land where the company raises 'its' animals."
The US government's own figures show how costly this monopolistic control is to farmers: the USDA estimates that corporate concentration in the beef-packing business alone costs the nation's cattle producers $10 billion a year in revenues. With only a small fraction of the price of food going to farmers, a season of hard work can easily leave them with just enough to pay for inputs, farm labour, machinery, rent, and interest on their loans. Those that don't earn enough to pay those costs soon lose their farms.
Many dispossessed rural people are coming to understand the broad systemic forces that are undermining economies and entire cultures the world over. But the mix of hopelessness and anger, particularly in America's economically-broken heartland, has made others susceptible to right-wing conspiracy theories that blame rural woes on racial minorities, Catholics, immigrants, a 'Jewish banking conspiracy', or a world government run by the UN and policed by swarms of black helicopters. Like the high rate of suicide among farmers, tragic incidents of violence in Waco, Oklahoma City, and elsewhere should be counted among the costs of agricultural 'progress'.
As with other aspects of the global economy, the trends cited above are neither 'natural' phenomena nor inevitable, but follow directly from the policies enacted by governments:
Global trade in food has been greatly facilitated by 'free trade' agreements, which treat efforts to protect small, local producers as 'barriers to trade' which must be eliminated. These treaties benefit only the transnational corporations that have come to dominate world production and trade.
Massive taxpayer-funded subsidies for transport infrastructures — including multi-lane motorways, bridges and tunnels, high-speed rail lines, harbours, shipping facilities, and airports — make long-distance trade in food seem artifically 'cheap'. In the US, where the transport infrastructure is as extensive and sophisticated as anywhere in the world, the federal government is earmarking another $175 billion for ground transportation projects aimed at "improving access to markets worldwide". Other infrastructure requirements for industrial production and global trade in food — like instantaneous global communications facilities and centralised energy infrastructures — are similarly subsidised. One estimate of the benefits received by US corporations alone from subsidies and externalised costs is $2.4 trillion annually.
Government-sponsored agricultural research and development rarely addresses the needs of small farmers for local markets, but instead focuses on technologies that benefit the largest farmers and corporate agribusinesses. A mechanical tomato picker developed at public expense by researchers at the University of California, for instance, greatly reduced labour costs for the large farms that could afford the machine's initial cost. This one technology helped to consolidate California's 4,000 tomato farms into just 600 in about a decade. And the deservedly maligned 'Terminator' technology — which renders seeds infertile in the second generation — was developed by a private corporation in partnership with the US Department of Agriculture.
Ignored environmental and health costs — from the air pollution and greenhouse gases that accompany fossil fuel burning for transport, to the cancers and birth defects from pesticide use on industrial farms — similarly deflate the price of food from the global system. In the US, for example, 80 percent of adults and 90 percent of children have measurable concentrations of pesticides in their urine — just one of many indications of the long-term health costs of a system of agriculture hailed for its ability to produce 'cheap' food.
Subsidies to farmers, which are routinely attacked as a trade barrier when provided by another country, generally support the largest farms — including corporate farms — far more than small family farms. Roughly 80% of the farm subsidies given by the UK government goes to the biggest 20% of its farmers, a ratio that describes EU and US farm subsidies as well. In any case, a high proportion of government support comes in the form of export subsidies, which does nothing to help farmers that sell to local markets.
Regulatory regimes — particularly those that aim at protecting public health — are needed largely because of the hazards of industrially-produced foods and long-distance transport, but place a disproportionately heavy burden on small producers for local markets. One small abbatoir operator in Britain, for example, recently had six health inspectors on hand while attempting to slaughter forty sheep. Six inspectors may be necessary to oversee the huge industrial meat-packing plants which are the source of most bacterially-contaminated meat, but they can make it virtually impossible for a small processor to operate. Another typical example is the regulatory obstacle to selling raw milk in the US. Such sales are illegal or highly limited in most states, meaning that dairy farmers have no choice but to sell their milk to processors at whatever price they are offered.
While health regulations severely limit the viability of small farmers and producers, governments routinely give industrial practices with potentially catastrophic health implications the green light. In the US, numerous pesticides known to be carginogenic are permitted to be used on food crops, and genetically-engineered foods were allowed to permeate the US food supply even though serious questions about their health impacts remain unanswered. Government support for this particular corporate-controlled food technology is so pervasive that the US Senate designated January 2000 as 'National Biotechnology Month'. The vote was unanimous.
The monopolistic control of food — though patently illegal — is largely ignored by regulators, often in the belief that large scale is a necessary prerequisite to 'competitiveness' in the global economy. For example, the US Justice Department's anti-trust review of the pending purchase of Continental Grain's commodity merchandising division by Cargill, the world's largest grain trader, has elicited loud objections from individual farmers and a wide range of public interest groups concerned about Cargill's monopoly power. Those comments were summarily dismissed by the government, and the sale is being moved forward.
Government policies actively encourage a reduction in the number of farmers in the name of 'efficiency', a policy summed up in the US Secretary of Agriculture's famous call to farmers to 'get big or get out' of farming. Farms are still being consolidated in America today, even though close to 4 million small farms have disappeared since 1935.
Though policymakers go to great lengths to support and promote the global model of food production and distribution, a fundamental shift in direction would bring significant environmental and economic benefits. Rather than specialise their production for export, farmers could instead be encouraged to diversify their production for local and regional markets. More localised food production and marketing systems would be far more diverse than today's homogenised global system, and would more closely reflect the geographical, climatic, and cultural diversity of the places where food is produced and consumed. Since a greater proportion of the food people eat would be locally produced, ecological niches for food production would be matched by the economic niches farmers need to survive.
While the ideal 'local food system' may consist of small, diversified farms selling directly to consumers, the reality is that most often a mix of local, regional, national, and international production would still be available. The goal would not be to put an end to all trade in food, but to avoid transporting food thousands of miles when it could instead be produced next door.
Such a shift would help revitalise rural economies decimated by the global economy. Less money would be skimmed off the price of food by corporate middlemen, and far more would remain in the hands of farmers. This would be particularly the case with the direct marketing of food via farmers markets and farm stands, box schemes and other forms of community supported agriculture.
If farmers were not impelled to specialise their production in a few global commodities, the trend towards ever larger and more highly mechanised farms would abate. Since small farms use a proportionally higher amount of human labour than mechanised inputs — UK farms under 40 hectares, for example, provide five times more per-hectare employment than those over 200 hectares — a return to smaller farms would help bring back some of the 700,000 farm jobs the UK has lost during the last half-century of agricultural 'progress'.
Small shopkeepers in turn would be more able to survive if corporate supermarket chains selling the homogenised products of the global food system were not so heavily subsidised. Just as small farms create jobs, small shops provide more employment for the same amount of goods sold than do their corporate competitors.
Localised food systems would also be far better for the environment, in large measure because the ecological toll of needless food transport would be eliminated. Within the global food system, 'food miles' are immense: today, the food on the typical American family's dinner table has traveled some 1,500 miles on average, and is thus 'embedded' with significant amounts of transport energy, pollution, and greenhouse gases.
Not all this transport can be explained away by the greater availability of 'exotic' foods, since countries are often both importers and exporters of the same product. In 1996, for instance, Britain imported 47 million kilogrammes of butter, while exporting 49 million kilogrammes. Unnecessary trade of this sort benefits only the speculators and agribusiness corporations that take their cut every time food changes hands.
If policies encouraged farms to serve local, rather than global, markets, their production would be more diversified. A region with nothing but monocultures — like the many-thousand acre wheat fields of Kansas — can produce huge amounts of a single crop for global markets, but people need more than one or two foods. Diversified production is inherently more stable than monocultural production, and would reduce the need for herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, thereby lessening the health and environmental damage they cause.
Perhaps the most fundamental ecological cost of the global food system arises from the way it systematically induces people to abandon diverse local goods — including their food — for the narrow range of monocultural products marketed by transnational corporations. There is no better example of this than the effort by Nestlé and other food corporations to convince Third World mothers that breast milk — the most ubiquitous and healthy of local foods — is inferior to the powdered version those companies sell. The same principle is being applied to virtually every other product, as people are made to believe that "imported equals good, local equals crap", in the words of an advertising executive in China.
Manipulating people around the world to prefer the homogenised products of the global food system may be good for fast-food corporations and agribusinesses like Archer-Daniels Midland — the self-proclaimed 'Supermarket to the World' — but for the planet as a whole it is an unmitigated disaster. It should be clear by now that the earth can neither supply the resources for nor absorb the wastes from even a small percentage of the world's people eating frozen TV dinners in their suburban homes, or driving their sports utility vehicles to McDonald's. Promising the rest of the world's population that they can and should do likewise — the implicit message of economic globalisation — is little short of criminal.
More sensible and responsible by far would be to promote patterns of food distribution that reduce food miles, that facilitate smaller-scale, decentralised markets, and that encourage greater dependence on locally-available foods.
This part of the article looks at the influences on food and farming of an increasingly urbanized world and a declining ratio of food producers to food consumers. Urbanization has been underpinned by the rapid growth in the world economy and in the proportion of gross world product and of workers in industrial and service enterprises. Globally, agriculture has met the demands from this rapidly growing urban population, including food that is more energy-, land-, water- and greenhouse gas emission-intensive. But hundreds of millions of urban dwellers suffer under-nutrition. So the key issues with regard to agriculture and urbanization are whether the growing and changing demands for agricultural products from growing urban populations can be sustained while at the same time underpinning agricultural prosperity and reducing rural and urban poverty. To this are added the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to build resilience in agriculture and urban development to climate change impacts. The paper gives particular attention to low- and middle-income nations since these have more than three-quarters of the world's urban population and most of its largest cities and these include nations where issues of food security are most pressing.
(a) Key global changes
In 1900, worldwide, there were 6.7 rural dwellers to each urban dweller; now there is less than one and projections suggest close to three urban dwellers to two rural dwellers by 2025. This has been underpinned by the rapid growth in the world economy and in the proportion of gross world product and of the economically active population working in industry and services (since most industrial and service enterprises are in urban areas). Globally, agricultural production has managed to meet the demands from a rapid growth in the proportion of the workforce not producing food and rapid changes in food demands towards more energy- and greenhouse gas emission-intensive food. However, hundreds of millions of urban dwellers face under-nutrition today, although this is far more related to their lack of income than to a lack of capacity to produce food. There is a very large urban population worldwide with incomes so low that their health and nutritional status are at risk from any staple food price rise—as became evident with the rising hunger among urban populations after the food price rises in 2007 and the first half of 2008.
Much is made of the fact that in 2008, the world's urban population exceeded its rural population for the first time. Less attention has been given to two other transitions: around 1980, the economically active population employed in industry and services exceeded that employed in the primary sector (agriculture, forestry, mining and fishing); and around 1940, the economic value generated by industry and services exceeded that generated by the primary sector, Today, agriculture provides the livelihoods for around one-third of the world's labour force and generates 2–3% of global value added—although this is misleading in that a significant proportion of industry and services are related to the production, processing, distribution and sale of food, and other agricultural products. In addition, the figure might be higher if the value of food produced by rural and urban dwellers for their own consumption is taken into account.
UN projections suggest that the world's urban population will grow by more than a billion people between 2010 and 2025, while the rural population will hardly grow at all. It is likely that the proportion of the global population not producing food will continue to grow, as will the number of middle and upper income consumers whose dietary choices are more energy- and greenhouse gas emission-intensive (and often more land-intensive) and where such changes in demand also bring major changes in agriculture and in the supply chain.
Two key demographic changes currently under way and likely to continue in the next few decades are the decline in population growth rates and the ageing of the population. An ageing population in wealthier nations may produce more people that want to and can live in ‘rural’ areas, but this is best understood not as deurbanization but as the urbanization of rural areas; most such people will also cluster around urban centres with advanced medical services and other services that they want and value.
(b) Definition of urbanization
The precise demographic definition of urbanization is the increasing share of a nation's population living in urban areas (and thus a declining share living in rural areas). Most urbanization is the result of net rural to urban migration. The level of urbanization is the share itself, and the rate of urbanization is the rate at which that share is changing. This definition makes the implications of urbanization distinct from those of urban population growth or those of the physical expansion of urban areas, both of which are often treated as synonymous with urbanization.
A nation's urban population can grow from natural increase (births minus deaths), net rural to urban migration and reclassification (as what was previously a rural settlement becomes classified as urban or as an urban settlement's boundaries are expanded, bringing into its population people who were previously classified as rural). Nations with rapid economic growth and relatively low rates of natural increase such as China over the past few decades have most of their urban population growth from urbanization; nations with little or no economic growth and high rates of natural increase (including many sub-Saharan African nations during the 1990s) have most of their urban population growth from natural increase. Differences in rural and urban rates of natural increase (influenced by differences in fertility and mortality rates) also influence urbanization, although generally these act to reduce urbanization.
The term urbanization is also used for the expansion of urban land uses. The conventional definition for urbanization used in this paper entails a shift in settlement patterns from dispersed to more dense settlement. By way of contrast, much of the expansion of urban land use is the result of a shift from dense to more dispersed settlement. In effect, the term urbanization is being used to refer to two opposing spatial shifts in settlement patterns, likely to have opposing effects on, for example, the land available for agriculture.
2. The scale and distribution of the world's urban population
Many development professionals see urbanization as a problem. Yet, no nation has prospered without urbanization and there is no prosperous nation that is not predominantly urban. Over the past 60 years, there is a strong association between economic growth and urbanization and most of the world's poorest nations remain among the least urbanized nations. Urban areas provide many potential advantages for improving living conditions through the economies of scale and proximity they provide for most forms of infrastructure and services. This can be seen in the high life expectancies evident in the best governed European, Asian and North and South American cities. Urbanization over the past two centuries has also been associated with pro-poor social reforms in which collective organization by the urban poor has had important roles.
But there are still very serious development problems in many urban areas, including high levels of urban poverty and serious problems of food security and of high infant and child mortality. Many urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa also have very high prevalence rates for HIV/AIDs; where there are large urban populations unable to get required treatments and a lack of programmes to protect those most at risk, these increase urban mortality rates significantly. But it is not urbanization that is the cause of such problems but the inadequacies in the response by governments and international agencies. In most nations, the pace of economic and urban change has outstripped the pace of needed social and political reform, especially at local government level. The consequences of this are evident in most cities in Asia and Africa and many in Latin America and the Caribbean—the high proportion of the population living in very poor and overcrowded conditions in informal settlements or tenements lacking adequate provision for water, sanitation, drainage, healthcare, schools and the rule of law. This is evident even in cities where there has been very rapid economic growth. The fact that half of Mumbai's or Nairobi's population live in ‘slums and squatter settlements’ is more to do with political choices than a lack of resources.
Little more than a century ago, most ‘slums’ in Europe and North America had living conditions, and infant and child mortality rates that were as bad as the worst-governed cities in low-income nations today. Here too there were problems of under-nutrition, lack of education and serious problems with exploitation, as well as deeply entrenched discrimination against women in almost all aspects of life. It was social and political reforms that dramatically reduced these. And social and political reforms are addressing these in many middle-income nations today—as in Thailand, Brazil and Tunisia where housing and living conditions, basic service provision and nutritional standards have improved considerably for large sections of the low-income urban population.
(b) An urbanizing world
The world's urban population today is around 3.2 billion people-more than the world's total population in 1960. Many aspects of urban change in recent decades are unprecedented, including the world's level of urbanization and the size of its urban population, the number of countries becoming more urbanized and the size and number of very large cities.
But these urban statistics tell us nothing about the large economic, social, political and demographic changes that underpinned them. These include the multiplication in the size of the world's economy, the shift in economic activities and employment structures from agriculture to industry and services (and within services to information production and exchange), and the virtual disappearance of colonial empires.
Aggregate urban statistics may suggest rapid urban change but many of the world's largest cities had more people moving out than in during their last inter-census period. The increasing number of ‘mega cities’ with 10 million or more inhabitants may seem to be a cause for concern but there are relatively few of them (17 by 2000), they concentrate less than 5 per cent of the world's population and most are in the world's largest economies. Although rapid urbanization is seen as a problem, generally, the more urbanized a nation, the higher the average life expectancy and the literacy rate and the stronger the democracy, especially at local level. Of course, beyond all these quantitative measures, cities are also centres of culture, of heritage, of social, cultural and political innovation. Some of world's fastest growing cities over the past 50 years also have among the best standards of living within their nation.
It is also important not to overstate the speed of urban change. Rates of urbanization and of urban population growth slowed in most sub-regions of the world during the 1990s. Mexico City had 18 million people in 2000, not the 31 million predicted 25 years previously. Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, Chennai (formerly Madras) and Cairo are among the many other large cities that, by 2000, had several million fewer inhabitants than had been predicted.
There are also significant changes in the distribution of the world's urban population between regions. In 1950, Europe and Northern America had more than half the world's urban population; by 2000, they had little more than a quarter. Asia now has half the world's urban population.
Some caution is needed when comparing urban trends between nations because of deficiencies in the statistical base. Accurate statistics for nations' urban population and urbanization levels depend on accurate censuses. But in some nations, there has been no census for the past 15–20 years. It is also difficult to compare the current population of most of the world's largest cities because each city has at least three different figures for their populations, depending on whether it is the city (or built-up area), the metropolitan area or a wider planning (or administrative) region that is being considered—or whether the city population includes the inhabitants of settlements with a high proportion of daily commuters. Also, there are significant differences between nations in how urban centres are defined, which limits the validity of international comparisons for urbanization levels. China's level of urbanization in 1999 could have been 24%, 31% or 73%, depending on which of three official definitions of urban populations was used. If India adopted the urban definition used in the UK or Sweden, its urbanization level would increase very considerably as many of its ‘large villages’ would be reclassified as urban centres.
(c) The change in the scale for large cities
Two aspects of the rapid growth in the world's urban population are the increase in the number of large cities and the historically unprecedented size of the largest cities. In 1800, there were two ‘million-cities’ (cities with one million or more inhabitants)—London and Beijing (then called Peking); by 2000, there were 378. In 2000, the average size of the world's 100 largest cities was 6.3 million inhabitants, compared with 2 million inhabitants in 1950 and 0.7 million in 1900.
(d) De-urbanization and shrinking cities
De-urbanization is a decrease in the proportion of the population living in urban areas. During the 1970s, in various high-income nations, there appeared to be a reversal of long-established urbanization trends nationally or within some regions as there was net migration from large to small urban centres or from urban to rural areas. This was labelled counter-urbanization, although much of it is more accurately described as demetropolitanization because it was population shifts from large metropolitan centres to smaller urban centres or from central cities to suburbs or commuter communities. Some of the ‘smaller cities’ that attracted large migration flows grew sufficiently to become metropolitan centres—so this was a shift from old to new metropolitan centres.
This was not underpinned by a shift in the workforce back to agriculture but by the growth of the labour force in industry and services that could live in small urban centres or rural areas and commute to work. In addition, with advanced transport and communication facilities, a proportion of new investment in industry and services could locate in rural areas. Telecommuting allows work to be done and incomes earned in rural areas, even if the work is for a city-based enterprise. This is best understood not as de-urbanization but as the urbanization of rural areas. Here, most rural households enjoy levels of provision for infrastructure and services that have been historically associated with urban centres; many are also within (say) 1 h of central-city theatres, cinemas, museums, art galleries, restaurants and shops. This phenomenon is also seen in the fact that many high-income nations have only 1–2% of their labour force in agriculture when 15–30% of their population live in rural areas.
Historically, there are examples of de-urbanization where the proportion of the economically active population working in agriculture increased, especially as nations faced economic or political crises or during wars. In the past 50 years, various nations de-urbanized for particular periods driven by central planning and force (for instance in Cambodia, Vietnam and parts of China). In the past two decades, some regions in sub-Saharan Africa de-urbanized or had no urbanization, largely in response to economic crisis and to structural adjustment. Others that have had wars or long-running conflicts may have de-urbanized, unless those fleeing these conflicts went to urban areas.
The term de-urbanization has also been applied to particular cities that lose population. This is confusing in that there are always changes in any nation's urban system as some urban centres are more successful than others at attracting or retaining investment. For instance, China has urbanized rapidly over the past three decades, underpinned by rapid economic growth, and it has many rapidly growing cities but also some that have had declining populations. In the United States and Europe, many of the great nineteenth and early twentieth century ports and steel, textile and mining centres have lost economic importance and population; so too have some of the major manufacturing cities—for instance, Detroit as a centre of motor vehicle production. These are not associated with a shift in the economically active population to agriculture but with locational shifts in where new investments are going.
3. The future for urbanization and the implications for farming
We need to understand what has underpinned urbanization in the past and how this is changing and might change in the future to be able to consider its implications for agriculture and food production. The history of urbanization and of the cities and towns it encompasses is a history of political strength and economic success. The spatial distribution of towns and cities is in effect the geography of the non-agricultural economy since it is where industrial and service enterprises have chosen to locate. It is also a map of where people working outside agriculture, forestry or fishing make a living. Changes in this spatial distribution reflect changes not only in the economy but also in how this is organized—for instance, how this is influenced by the growth of multinational corporations and how they are structured, by shifts in goods production to greater use of out-sourcing and by economic changes underpinned by advanced telecommunications including the Internet.
The rural to urban migration flows that cause urbanization are mostly a response to these economic changes. Some migration flows might be considered exceptions—for instance, growth in places where retired people choose to live, or in tourist resorts; but this also reflects economic change because of the growth in enterprises there to meet the demand for goods and services generated by the retired people and/or tourists.
This close association between urbanization and political strength and economic success is not likely to change looking to the future, although the countries and regions that enjoy the greatest success will change. Economic success for most cities may depend more today on success in global markets than 50 years ago, although intense inter-city competition for markets beyond national boundaries has been an influence for most cities for many centuries. Urbanization has also been underpinned by the expansion of the state, although the scale of this depends on economic success. In addition, competent, accountable urban governments have considerable importance for economic success. Today, many of the world's largest cities are large not because they are political capitals but because of their economic success.
How urbanization is understood has large implications for how its likely future influence on food and farming is perceived. If urbanization is regarded as a process taking place in almost all nations and as a driver of change, then it can be assumed that extrapolating past trends provides us with a likely picture of the world's future urban population. This is backed up by projections for all nations for their urban populations and their levels of urbanization up to 2025 and beyond. These suggest that almost all nations continue to urbanize except for those already classified as 100 per cent urban. Within this assumption of almost universal increases in urbanization, often there are references to urbanization being out of control because it seems to take place regardless of economic conditions. There is also uncertainty as to how to fit examples of de-urbanization into this broad picture of a world with almost all nations becoming increasingly urbanized.
But if urbanization is understood as a process that is deeply influenced by the scale and nature of economic, social and political change, then projections up to 2025 and beyond become more uncertain. How does one predict the absolute and relative economic performance of each nation up to 2025? Within this understanding of urbanization, there is an interest in the links between urbanization and economic change (which prove to be robust and multi-faceted). Since the scale and nature of economic change varies so much between nations and within nations, there is an interest here in how differences in economic change are associated with (and often the main cause of) differences in the scale and nature of urban change (including urbanization). De-urbanization is more easily incorporated into this, as a spatial manifestation of economic decline or collapse. This paper suggests that there is a substantial but often overlooked evidence base for this second interpretation of urbanization—and that this also provides a more reliable basis for considering the current and future influence of urbanization on food and farming.
(b) The economic drivers of urbanization
In low- and middle-income nations, urbanization is overwhelmingly the result of people moving in response to better economic opportunities in urban areas, or to the lack of prospects in their home farms or villages. The scale and direction of people's movements accord well with changes in the spatial location of economic opportunities. Although it is often assumed that most migration is from rural to urban areas, in many nations rural-to-rural, urban-to-rural and urban-to-urban migration flows are also important.
That much of the migration over the past 60 years has been from rural to urban areas is hardly surprising in that most of the growth in economic activities over this period has been in urban centres. Today, around 97 per cent of the world's gross domestic product (GDP) is generated by industry and services, and around 65 per cent of the world's economically active population works in industry and services—and a very high proportion of all industry and services are in urban areas.
The graphs in show how changes in urbanization levels reflect changes in the proportion of GDP generated by industry and services and the proportion of the workforce in industry and services.
Changes in the proportion of GDP from industry and services, of the labour force working in industry and services and of the population in urban areas, 1950–2005. Diamonds, % GDP from industry and services; squares, % labour force in industry and services; dashed lines, level of urbanization.
(c) Urbanization and the global economy
Many cities owe their prosperity to their roles within the increasingly internationalized system of production and distribution. International, national and local tourism have also proved important underpinnings in many cities and smaller urban centres. There is an economic logic underlying the distribution of the world's largest cities. For instance, the world's five largest economies in 2000 had 44 per cent of the world's ‘million cities’ and eight of the world's 17 megacities; most of the other large cities and megacities were within the next 15 largest economies.
There is also an obvious association between most of the world's largest cities and globalization. Growing cross-border flows of raw materials, goods, information, income and capital, much of it managed by transnational corporations, have underpinned a network of ‘global cities’ that are the key sites for the management and servicing of the global economy. Many of the world's fastest growing cities are also the cities that have had most success in attracting international investment. Large international migration flows, and consequent remittance flows, are also associated with globalization and have profound impacts on many cities—in areas of both origin and destination. Around 175 million people (more than 2% of the world's population) live in a country in which they were not born.
However, the association between globalization and large cities is moderated by two factors. The first is that advanced telecommunications systems and corporate structures allow a separation of the production process from those who manage and finance it. The second factor, linked to the first, is the more decentralized pattern of urban development that is possible within regions with well-developed transport and communications infrastructure. Many of the most successful regions have urban forms that are less dominated by a large central city, and have new enterprises developing in a network of smaller cities and greenfield sites. This is usually underpinned by a growing capacity among cities outside the large metropolitan areas to attract a significant proportion of new investment, which in turn has been supported by decentralization where local governments' capacities and accountability to citizens were increased.
(d) Urbanization and food and agriculture
Urbanization brings major changes in demand for agricultural products both from increases in urban populations and from changes in their diets and demands. This has brought and continues to bring major changes in how demands are met and in the farmers, companies, corporations, and local and national economies who benefit (and who lose out). It can also bring major challenges for urban and rural food security.
But it is misleading to consider this in general terms for ‘developing countries’ as if current or likely future changes in (say) Argentina and Chile have anything in common with (say) Mauritania and Burkina Faso. To predict changes for each nation is difficult, in large part because of uncertainties as to how much and where urban populations will grow in the future. It is usually assumed that most ‘developing nations’ will continue urbanizing but many low-income nations currently lack any area of comparative advantage within the global economy and so also the basis for the prosperity needed to underpin urbanization. It is often assumed that there are particularly serious problems with serving growing numbers of ‘megacities’ (cities of over 10 million inhabitants) but as noted already, there are relatively few of them, and in many nations a more decentralized pattern of urban growth was evident in the last round of censuses taken in 2000; it will be interesting to see if this is a trend that has been sustained when data from the current round of censuses become available.
It is worth considering likely changes at two different ends of the spectrum in terms of nations' economic success. It would be expected that in nations with successful economies and rapid urbanization, there will be rising demands for meat, dairy products, vegetable oils and ‘luxury’ foods, and this implies more energy-intensive production and, for many nations, more imports. Urbanization is also associated with dietary shifts towards more processed and pre-prepared foods, in part in response to long working hours and, for a proportion of the urban population, with reduced physical activity. Of course, food demand will also be influenced by how this economic growth changes the distribution of income.
How will this influence agriculture around or close to growing urban centres will also vary; it would be expected that a growing role for supermarkets (and transnational corporations) in food sales would bring changes in all aspects of the food chain. This would include favouring larger (and often non-local) agricultural producers and major changes in the distribution and marketing of food. This also means a shift in employment within the food system, with fewer people working in agriculture and more working in transport, wholesaling, retailing, food processing and vending.
The high proportion of urban households with electricity in middle-income and some low-income nations also means far more households with refrigeration and this supports shifts in food demand. Many low- and middle-income nations are likely to have a growing share of urban food demand met by imported food and by the kinds of shifts in agriculture evident in high-income nations over the past few decades towards more capital- and energy-intensive and less labour-intensive farming. But growing demand from high-income urban dwellers or from tourists may also support the growth of a range of high-value food crops that provide more scope for many local farms (and smaller farmers) and may have valuable multiplier links within the local economy. This includes more scope for urban and peri-urban agriculture (see §4c). It is difficult to predict how this will change—for instance, if there is a sustained increase in the price of oil and natural gas, this might provide local agricultural producers with some advantages in meeting local demands as their production and transport to market is less carbon-intensive, or disadvantage local producers that were serving foreign markets (for instance, high-value crops that are exported by air).
At the other end of the spectrum, there is a very large urban population in nations or sub-national regions lacking prosperous economies where demand for agricultural products is likely to change much less. There are many nations where most of the urban population still has no electricity and where the profits to be made in food retailing are too small to attract large corporations. In Africa, multinational chains have yet to reach poor urban neighbourhoods and have little presence in poorer countries. In addition, a very large part of the urban population in both prosperous and unprosperous low- and middle-income nations have incomes so low that they struggle to meet their basic nutritional needs.
(e) Does the rural population suffer from an urban bias in development?
Given the concentration of economic opportunity in urban areas, it might be expected that urban populations would have much better living standards, levels of nutrition and service provision than rural populations. The concentration of powerful economic interests and wealthier groups in particular urban areas would be expected to produce a bias that favoured them. But it would be misleading to term this urban bias if it favours only a proportion of the urban population. The scale and depth of urban poverty in low- and middle-income nations hardly suggests that everyone benefits from an urban bias. It is common for between one-third and one-half of the population in cities to live in illegal settlements lacking adequate provision for water, sanitation, healthcare and schools. Their homes and livelihoods are at risk from eviction—and tens of millions of urban dwellers are evicted from their homes each year, mostly with no compensation or very inadequate compensation. The large and growing scale of urban poverty in China is a reminder of how very rapid economic growth sustained over 25 years does not automatically translate into less urban poverty. The same is true for some of India's most prosperous cities. In addition, the scale and depth of urban poverty is usually underestimated by official statistics because of inadequate allowance made in setting poverty lines for the costs that low-income city dwellers face for non-food necessities, such as rent, water, access to toilets, healthcare, fuel and keeping children at school
4. The implications of urbanization for food production
(a) Urbanization and the loss of agricultural land
Urban expansion inevitably covers some agricultural land while changes in land values and land markets around cities often result in land left vacant as the owners anticipate the gains they will make from selling it or using it for non-agricultural uses. In most urban areas in low- and middle-income nations, the absence of any land-use plan or strategic planning framework to guide land-use changes means that urban areas expand haphazardly. This expansion is determined by where different households, enterprises and public sector activities locate and build, legally or illegally. In most instances, there is little effective control over land-use conversions from agriculture to non-agricultural uses. There may be regulations that are meant to limit this but these are often avoided by politicians and real estate interests. This unregulated physical expansion brings many serious consequences. These include the segregation of low-income groups in illegal settlements on the worst-located and the most hazardous sites (they would not be permitted to settle on better-located and safer sites) and a patchwork of high- and low-density land uses to which it is both expensive and difficult to provide infrastructure and services.
Urban centres often expand over their nation's most productive agricultural land since most urban centres grew there precisely because of highly fertile soils. Most of the world's major cities today have been important cities for several hundred years, so they became important cities before the development of motorized transport (and later refrigeration) that reduced cities' dependence on their surroundings for food and other agricultural products. Of course, for prosperous cities, the demand for agricultural commodities has long-since gone far beyond what is or could be produced in their surroundings. They draw on large and complex global supply chains and have large ecological footprints, drawing on ‘distant elsewheres’ for food, fuel and carbon sinks. The dependence of many very large concentrations of urban populations on long international supply chains for food, fuels and most intermediate and final goods makes them vulnerable to disasters in locations that supply these or buy their products, and also to rising fuel prices.
However, the loss of agricultural land to the spatial expansion of urban areas is often exaggerated; one recent study suggested that only West Europe among the world's regions has more than 1 per cent of its land area as urban. In addition, a declining proportion of land used for agriculture around a city may be accompanied by more intensive production for land that remains in agriculture or intensive urban agriculture on land not classified as agricultural. In most locations, governments could and should restrict the loss of agricultural land to urban expansion. But this can also bring serious social consequences if it pushes up land and house prices and reduces still further the proportion of households that can afford a legal housing plot with infrastructure.
Approximately 25 per cent of the world's terrestrial surface is occupied by cultivated land. Urban growth is more likely to reduce arable land availability if it takes place in this zone. But an analysis of the percentage of urban and rural population in the cultivated zones in each region found no evidence of urban populations concentrated in cultivated zones.
Of course, the expansion of urban land uses is not just the result of urbanization but also (in most cities) of natural increase and of declining urban densities. Since urbanization entails fewer rural people as well as more urban people, it may reduce rural building and so, in part, counteract the effects of urbanization expanding over cultivated land.
(b) Does urbanization result in more land-intensive diets?
Dietary changes can increase pressures on agricultural systems, with increasing meat consumption the most important example of this. Diets differ between rural and urban areas, and meat consumption per capita is higher in urban areas. But a review of the relationship between urbanization and food prices suggests that this may be the result of higher urban incomes and not urbanization or urban living, as higher income rural dwellers have similar levels of increased meat consumption or of luxury goods to higher income urban dwellers. For instance, in Sri Lanka, there is considerable diversity in the expenditures on meat per household in different parts of the country, but the difference between median rural and median urban households conforms roughly to what might be expected given the differences in average income. In Vietnam, data from 1993 to 2004 show that all parts of the country experienced rapid income growth and increasing consumption of luxury foods, in a pattern that suggests that income, not urban living, is the driving force.
(c) Urban agriculture
Hundreds of millions of urban dwellers rely on urban agriculture for part of their food consumption or income as they sell high-value crops or non-food crops or raise livestock for sale. A range of studies in urban centres in East Africa during the 1990s showed 17–36% of the population growing crops and/or keeping livestock. These studies also showed the diversity among urban farmers—for instance, in Dar es Salaam, they included professionals, teachers, government officials, urban planners, students, casual labourers, the unemployed and part-time workers. Urban and peri-urban agriculture has a significant role in food and nutrition security in most low-income nations, although in many cities it is more difficult for the urban poor to get access to the land needed for agriculture.
(d) Does urbanization imply less hunger and malnutrition?
Although urbanization is generally associated with economic growth, this does not mean that the number of urban dwellers facing hunger has declined in all nations. A study of 10 nations in sub-Saharan Africa showed that the proportion of the urban population with energy deficiencies was above 40 per cent in all but one nation and above 60 per cent in three. In 12 of 18 low-income countries, food-energy deficiencies in urban areas were the same or higher than rural areas, even though urban areas have higher average incomes.
The rapid increases in food prices during 2007 and early 2008 showed the vulnerability of the urban poor to price rises. Although there has been some decline in prices since mid-2008, most analysts believe that prices will not return to the levels of the early 2000s because of continued strong demand for energy and for cereals for food, feed and fuel, as well as to structural land and water constraints and likely food production impacts of climate change.
Urban food security depends on households being able to afford food within other needs that have to be purchased - although as noted above, the contribution of urban agriculture is important for many households. Various studies have shown the extent of food insecurity among low-income households in urban areas and the many coping measures taken, including those that in the longer term compromise health and nutritional status.
However, many Latin American and some Asian and African nations that now have predominantly urbanized populations have managed to sustain long-term trends of falling infant and child mortality rates and increasing average life expectancies, and this implies improving nutrition levels too. In some nations, the provision of a regular small cash sum for low-income households (e.g. the bolsa familia in Brazil) or the provision of certain staple foods at subsidized prices has reduced hunger and malnutrition—although with considerable differences in effectiveness and in the possibilities for those who need this entitlement to actually obtain it.
5. Urban change, food demand and rural–urban linkages
Perhaps surprisingly, the possible negative consequences of urbanization for agriculture are often stressed more than its positive consequences. Since urbanization is generally the result of a growth in non-food producers and their average incomes, it often provides growing demands for agricultural products and for higher value products that bring benefits to farmers.
Any discussion of the ways in which urbanization may affect food demand and supply needs to take into account the complexity of the linkages between rural and urban people and enterprises, and to recognize the capacity of food producers to adapt to changes in urban demand.
A high proportion of households have rural and urban components to their incomes and livelihoods—so they are better understood as multilocal, as individual members engage in different activities in different locations while sharing resources and assets. Incomes from non-agricultural activities and remittances have proved important for reducing rural poverty in many places. Earnings from non-farm activities are estimated to account for 30–50% of rural household income in Africa, about 60 per cent in Asia and around 40 per cent in Latin America. Remittances from urban household members and earnings from non-farm activities also have a major role in financing innovation and intensification of farming in Africa and in Asia. This is best documented in rural areas with relatively good access to urban markets and infrastructure. In many cases, local traders also contribute to the creation of non-farm jobs through the local processing of agricultural produce, and this helps diversify the economic base of large villages and helps in their gradual transformation into small urban centres.
Around half the world's urban population live in urban centres with less than half a million inhabitants, and this includes a considerable proportion in urban centres with less than 20 000 inhabitants. Small urban centres in agricultural areas can have especially important roles in the livelihoods of the poorest rural groups by providing access to non-farm activities that require limited skills and capital. They also have an important role in the provision of basic services such as health and education to their own population and that of the surrounding rural area.
Thus, migration and mobility should be seen as a form of income diversification that can support farming innovation and intensification. Small family farms, provided they are well connected to markets, can often compete with large commercial farms, especially in the production of higher-end food, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
6. Urbanization and climate change
The multiple rural–urban linkages noted above mean that climate change impacts on agriculture will affect urban areas (for instance, influencing food availability and price), and climate change impacts on urban areas will affect agriculture (for instance, disruptions in urban demand for agricultural produce and disruptions to the goods and services provided by urban enterprises to agriculture and to rural households). Many rural households would also suffer if remittances from family members working in urban areas were disrupted by climate change-related impacts.
Hundreds of millions of urban dwellers are at risk from the direct and indirect impacts of current and likely future climate change—for instance, from more severe or frequent storms, floods and heatwaves, constraints on fresh water and food supplies, and higher risks from a range of water-borne, food-borne and vector-borne diseases. The highest risks in urban areas are concentrated within low-income populations in low- and middle-income nations. In part, this is because most such nations face impacts that are more serious than those faced by high-income nations. But what is more significant for urban risks is very large deficits in the infrastructure and services needed to protect urban inhabitants from climate change impacts. This is underpinned by a lack of capacity in most urban governments—and in many, an unwillingness to provide infrastructure and services in informal settlements, even when these house 30–60% of a city's population (as they often do).
Thus, the climate change-related risks facing the population of any urban centre are a function not only of what climate change brings but also of the quality of housing and the quality and extent of provision for infrastructure and services for a discussion of this in relation to India's urban population). Urban populations in wealthy nations take for granted that a web of institutions, infrastructure, services and regulations protects them from extreme weather, and will keep adapting to continue protecting them. This adaptive capacity is underpinned by buildings conforming to building, health and safety regulations. In addition, it is assumed that city planning, land-use regulation, and building and infrastructure standards will be adjusted to any new or heightened risk that climate change may bring, encouraged and supported by changes in private-sector investments (over time shifting from high-risk areas) and changes in insurance premiums and coverage. At least for the next few decades, this ‘adaptive capacity’ can deal with likely climate change impacts in high-income countries.
But most of the urban population in low- and middle-income nations face (often very large) deficiencies in all the institutions, infrastructure, services and regulations noted above. This makes them very vulnerable as risks are much higher, and a large and growing urban population are exposed to such risks. This helps explain why most deaths from extreme weather disasters are in low- and middle-income nations, and the rapid growth in the number of deaths and serious injuries from such disasters in their urban areas. The impacts fall most heavily on low-income groups and within such groups on women and children.
Obviously, disasters disrupt food demand and food supplies—and within urban areas, it is generally low-income groups that suffer most as their income-earning activities are disrupted and what little asset bases they have are rapidly used—or destroyed by the disaster. A high proportion of low-income urban households—especially those reliant on wage labour—are particularly at risk from climate change-induced food shortages or staple food price rises.
There is also the issue of climate change-induced migration. There are predictions that by 2050 there could be 200 million ‘environmental refugees’—people forced to move by environmental degradation caused by climate change. But land degradation or decreases in rainfall do not inevitably result in migration, or where they do, most movement is short term, as in the case of extreme weather disasters, and short-distance, as in the case of drought and land degradation. For slow-onset climate change that has negative impacts on agriculture, income diversification and short-distance circular migration are likely to be common responses.
Where climate change is causing environmental stress for rural livelihoods, it will be one among a number of factors in determining migration duration, direction and composition. Agricultural adaptation initiatives do not necessarily reduce rural–urban migration; indeed, successful rural development often supports rapid urban development locally as it generates demand for goods and services from farmers and rural households.
A failure to support rural populations to adapt will mean crisis-driven population movements that make those forced to move very vulnerable. Here, migration is no longer a planned movement to an urban centre helped by knowledge and contacts there. A considerable proportion of the urban poor in some African, Latin American and Asian nations are those displaced by conflicts and disasters. Most crisis-driven movements may be unrelated to climate events but they show how much these destroy livelihoods and create vulnerable populations. A high proportion of these people move to urban areas, leaving behind homes, social networks and assets. It can take a long time to insert themselves into local communities (who may resent them as they compete for income sources). Ironically, it will be a failure of governments and international agencies to support the poorer and more vulnerable households to adapt (including the adaptation achieved by migration and mobility) and the failure of high-income nations to agree to needed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that will produce the crisis-driven migrations that those in high-income nations currently fear.
Urbanization is often considered as having negative impacts on agriculture—for instance, from the loss of agricultural land to urban expansion and an urban bias in public funding for infrastructure, services and subsidies. But the scale of urban poverty suggests little evidence of urban bias for much of the urban population—and clearly, urban demand for agricultural products has great importance for rural incomes. Agricultural producers and rural consumers also rely on urban-based enterprises for a wide range of goods and services—including access to markets. So the key issue is whether the growing and changing demands for food (and other agricultural products) that an increasingly urbanized population and economy brings can help underpin agricultural and rural prosperity and sustainability within a global decline in agricultural land area per person and water constraints. To this is now added the need to adapt to the impacts of climate change that have the potential to disrupt agriculture and urban demand, and the urban enterprises that provide producer and consumer services to rural populations.
The world's level of urbanization is likely to continue increasing, as long as the long-term trend in most low- and middle-income nations is for economic growth. Among these nations, those with the most economic success will generally urbanize most. Higher income nations may no longer urbanize, but this is largely the result of non-agricultural workers being able to live in rural areas or industrial and service enterprises located in rural areas.
Low- and middle-income nations with no economic success will have little urbanization. In extreme crisis, they may de-urbanize through an increase in the proportion of the population working in agriculture, forestry and fishing. But this is only likely in nations where parts of the urban poor still have the links in rural areas that allow their reincorporation into rural livelihoods.
With regard to climate change, it is difficult to predict likely impacts because these depend so much on whether global agreements rapidly reduce the drivers of greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change mitigation presents many challenges to agriculture to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to better-off urban dwellers to shift to less carbon-intensive diets and lifestyles. A failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is likely to mean increasing numbers of disasters with very serious impacts on rural and urban populations. Many of the largest cities in low-income nations are particularly at risk and at present lack the capacity to adapt.
Here's a little USA history
Small land grants commonly made to individual settlers; large tracts often granted to well-connected colonists
First permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia
First African slaves brought to Virginia; by 1700, slaves are displacing southern indentured servants
English farmers settle in New England villages; Dutch, German, Swedish, Scotch-Irish, and English farmers settle on isolated Middle Colony farmsteads; English and some French farmers settle on plantations in tidewater and on isolated Southern Colony Farmsteads in Piedmont; Spanish immigrants, mostly lower middle-class and indentured servants, settle the Southwest and California.
Continental Congress offers land grants for service in the Continental Army
Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 provide for survey, sale, and government of northwestern lands
Total population: 3,929,214; farmers 90% of labor force; U.S. area settled extends westward on average of 255 miles; parts of the frontier cross the Appalachians
Public Land Act authorizes Federal land sales to the public in minimum 640-acre plots at $2 per acre of credit.
Total Population: 5,308,483
Total population: 7,239,881
Florida and other land acquired through treaty with Spain
Total population: 9,638,453; Land Law allows as little as 80 acres of public land for a minimum price of $1.25 an acre; credit system abolished
Total population: 12,866,020; Mississippi River forms the approximate frontier boundary
Land speculation boom
Anti-rent war in New York, a protest against the continued collection of quitrents
Total population: 17,069,453; farm population; 9,012,000 (est.); farmers 69% of labor force
Pre-emption Act gives squatters first rights to buy land
Potato famine in Ireland and the German Revolution of 1848 greatly increase immigration
Texas, Oregon, the Mexican cession, and the Gadsden Purchase added to the Union
Total population: 23,191,786; farm population; 11,680,000 (est.); farmers 64% of labor force; Number of farms: 1,449,000; average acres: 203
Successful farming on the prairies begins; with the California gold rush, the frontier extends to the Pacific coast
Free land is a vital rural issue
Graduation Act reduces price of unsold public lands
Total population: 31,443,321; farm population: 15,141,000 (est.); farmers 58% of labor force; Number of farms: 2,044,000; average acres: 199
Homestead Act grants 160 acres to settlers who have worked the land 5 years
Sharecropping system in the South replaces the old slave plantation system 1865-90 Influx of Scandinavian immigrants
Cattle boom accelerates settlement of Great Plains; range wars develop between farmers and ranchers
Total population: 38,558,371; farm population: 18,373,000 (est.); farmers 53% of labor force; Number of farms: 2,660,000; average acres: 153
Total population: 50,155,783; farm population: 22,981,000 (est.); farmers 49% of labor force; Number of farms: 4,009,000; average acres: 134; Most humid land already settled; heavy agricultural settlement on the Great Plains begins
Most immigrants are from southern and eastern Europe
Drought reduces settlement on the Great Plains
Increases in land under cultivation and number of immigrants becoming farmers boost agricultural output
Total population: 62,941,714; farm population: 29,414,000 (est.); farmers 43% of labor force; Number of farms: 4,565,000; average acres: 136; Census shows that the frontier settlement is over
President authorized to set aside public lands as forest reserves
Total population: 75,994,266; farm population: 29,414,000 (est.); farmers 38% of labor force; Number of farms: 5,740,000; average acres: 147
Continued agricultural settlement on the Great Plains
Policy of reserving timberlands inaugurated on a large scale
Forest Service created
Total population: 91,972,266; farm population: 32,077,000 (est.); farmers 31% of labor force; Number of farms: 6,366,000; average acres: 138
Dryland farming boom on the Great Plains
Immigration of agricultural workers from Mexico
Stock Raising Homestead Act
Total population: 105,710,620; farm population: 31,614,269; farmers 27% of labor force; Number of farms: 6,454,000; average acres: 148
Immigration Act greatly reduces number of new immigrants
Total population: 122,775,046; farm population: 30,455,350; farmers 21% of labor force; Number of farms: 6,295,000; average acres: 157; irrigated acres: 14,633,252
Drought and dust-bowl conditions develop
Executive orders withdraw public lands from settlement, location, sale, or entry; Taylor Grazing Act
Total population: 131,820,000; farm population: 30,840,000; farmers 18% of labor force; Number of farms: 6,102,000; average acres: 175; irrigated acres: 17,942,968
Many former southern sharecroppers migrate to war-related jobs in cities
Total population: 151,132,000; farm population: 25,058,000; farmers 12.2% of labor force; Number of farms: 5,388,000; average acres: 216; irrigated acres: 25,634,869
Legislation provides for Great Plains Conservation Program
Total population: 180,007,000; farm population: 15,635,000; farmers 8.3% of labor force; Number of farms: 3,711,000; average acres: 303; irrigated acres: 33,829,000
State legislation to keep land in farming increases
Total population: 204,335,000; farm population: 9,712,000; farmers 4.6% of labor force; Number of farms: 2.780, 000; average acres: 390
Clean Water Act
Total population: 227,020,000; farm population: 6,051,000; farmers 3.4% of labor force; Number of farms: 2,439,510; average acres: 426; irrigated acres: 50,350,000 (1978)
For the first time since the 19th century, foreigners (Europeans and Japanese primarily) begin to purchase significant acreages of farmland and ranchland
The Southeast's worst summer drought on record takes a severe toll on many farmers
Farmland values bottom out after a 6-year decline, signaling both a turnaround in the farm economy and increased competition with other countries' exports
Scientists warn that global warming may affect the future viability of American farming; one of the worst droughts in the Nation's history hits Midwestern farmers
Total population: 261,423,000; farm population: 2,987,552; farmers 2.6% of labor force; Number of farms: 2,143,150; average acres: 461; irrigated acres: 49,404,000 (1992)
Farm entrepreneurial population: 5,024,000
Number of farms: 2.19 million; average acres: 435
Rural counties gain population after losing ground in the 1980s
Total population: 275,000,000 (est.)
Friends - Seek every moment and let God begin to take regain control of your land. -Pauly Hart