In June 2013, the ‘Programme of Work and Budget’ of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for the years 2014-2015 were approved by its member states, which is how United Nations agencies refer to countries. This approval came at the end of the FAO’s week-long governing conference.

The member states congratulated themselves for having set the FAO a new list of ‘strategic objectives’ and these are: (1) contribute to the eradication of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition, (2) increase and improve provision of goods and services from agriculture, forestry and fisheries in a sustainable manner, (3) reduce rural poverty, (4) enable more inclusive and efficient agricultural and food systems at local, national and international levels, (5) increase the resilience of livelihoods to threats and crises, and (6) provide technical knowledge, quality and services for the work of the FAO.

The governing conference also assured itself that freedom from hunger (which is why the FAO was created in 1945 and why, two years earlier in 1943, the ideas that formed it were set down) is possible by tackling all the causes of hunger simultaneously particularly poverty, and not just by producing more food.

Identifying all the causes of hunger and all the causes of poverty is what the individual agencies of the UN system are adept at, but the FAO’s mandate to end hunger needs more than ever to confront squarely the trio of problems that combine to create conditions in which hunger and poverty thrive, and these are the current way in which national economies are given shape and form, the race to collect populations in cities and towns, and the steady rise in the number of humans.

In April 2012 the UN’s Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs issued a compendium of data and analysis called ‘World Urbanization Prospects, the 2011 Revision’ (a revision is done every two years and contains estimates and projections of the urban and rural populations of all countries in the world and of their major urban agglomerations).

This last revision said that Africa’s urban population will increase from 414 million to over 1.2 billion by 2050 while that of Asia will increase from 1.9 billion to 3.3 billion. Both regions together will account for 86% of the total increase in the world’s urban population. Such an increase, the ‘Prospects’ said, "will provide new opportunities to improve education and public services in Africa and Asia, as more concentrated populations become easier to reach". That unfortunately is the positive gloss that is characteristic of UN agencies being held up as a counterfoil to the realities of soaring unemployment, miserable living conditions, energy poverty, crumbling infrastructure, the expansion of slums, the toxic deterioration of the urban environment – and growing food insecurity.

Using the World Urbanisation Prospects data, one can see that there are cities in the 1 to 2 million range of inhabitants and whose populations have grown by 20%-30% in 2003-13 such as Lilongwe in Malawi (population of 851,783 in 2013 and with 304,952 added in the last ten years), Matola in Mozambique (858,531 and 290,041), Pointe-Noire in Congo (887,112 and 273,674) and Nouakchott in Mauritania (847,232 and 242,038). These are cities – like many more in China and India (or East Asia and South Asia) – for which the population growth rate over a ten-year period may be 28%-32% whereas the internal rate of replacement may be 15%-16% (this means the net birth rate amongst a cohort of residents who were also counted in the last census, minus the death rate of that same cohort, but excluding migrants who are new to the cohort).

If therefore the municipalities of these cities have adopted programmes that encourage cultivation of vegetables and fruit for a significant section of the population (let us say 10%, which I think will be wildly optimistic) and has also enabled linkages along the lines of community-supported agriculture from nearby peri-urban arable land (which has been reserved from encroachment by industry, further urbanisation or new migrants) then we would see some evidence of an arresting of price inflation for the typical local food basket (See ‘Urban agriculture sprouts in favelas’).. And it would be excellent if this arrest could take place while promoting, in some small way, the diversity of leafy green vegetables, roots and tubers, beans and succulents that represented also the diversity of the immigrant communities’ cultures. Still, that continues to expose a large (and growing) section of the population of these cities to the monotony of a small and carefully-controlled set of cereal varieties that are now grown in order to provide national food security, but which nonetheless transfer global food price and fuel price inflation.

That is why the questions of how much rural cultivation of staples, how much urban cultivation (greens and roots as very low-cost replacements), how much of a cultivating population remains in the districts and on plots of one to ten acres to continue to supply us while feeding themselves, remain in the foreground. Unfortunately, the agendas that are set so solemnly for international (or global) food and hunger problems cannot be used at the sub-national or local administrative level, which must analyse its own problems and find practical solutions, all with few resources. That is why studies of what urban households have gained – nutritionally and monetarily – by switching partly to ‘subsistence’ cultivation in situ, are still few and far between.

In Bangalore (also called Bengaluru), south India, an attempt has begun to measure these dependencies and I hope that by year-end 2013 some early results will emerge, but already there is a signal about the importance of humble pushcart vendors and their role in strengthening the thread of community, which may even be able to determine what is grown for them in conditions they are satisfied with, and this to me would be an excellent example of a positive rural-urban foodway satisfying budgets at both ends and being culturally and ethically a world removed from the industrial-food retail rubbish that is passed off as consumer choice.

On the other hand, what does one make of these additions to already large urban populations? Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar, 1.09 million more; Samut Prakan in Thailand, 0.92m more; Can Tho in Viet Nam, 0.78m more; Lusaka in Zambia, 0.75m more; Batam in Indonesia, 0.66m more; Niamey in Niger, 0.65 m more; Yamoussoukro in Côte d’Ivoire, 0.65m more; Wuhu Anhui in China, 0.64 m more; Lomé in Togo, 0.63m more; and Santa Cruz in Bolivia, 0.62m more (my projections, based on the World Urbanisation Prospects 2011 Revision, and these cities are among the list of urban agglomerations with 750,000 Inhabitants or more in 2011).

These ten cities are among the 275 in the list whose populations, in 2011, were between 1 and 2 million. These are the top ten, ranked by additions to their populations in the ten years 2003-13 (my calculations based on their population growth rates from 2000). Like Lusaka, Batam and the others in the top ten, there are another 22 cities to which population additions of more than 0.5 million were recorded in the decade 2003-13. To consider these demographical markers more closely, amongst the world’s cities whose populations in 2011 were between 1 and 2 million, 22 saw additions to their populations of more than 0.5 million. The average population of these 22 cities today, in 2013, is 1.57 million. The average addition per city in the last decade has been 0.61 million, or just over 38% more.

These cities have experienced rapid recent population growth (which according to the commonly used system of national accounts and in the view of the multilateral banks and lending agencies is essential for economic growth) and they inevitably experience urban expansion too (See ‘Estimating the world’s potentially available cropland using a bottom-up approach’). That expansion comes at a cost, part of the cost being ecological, part of it being the change in land use around the perimeter of the urban agglomeration and along the highways leading to it, part of it being the burden of providing services to waves of new immigrants at a scale that inexperienced planners and administrators are usually unable to deal with.

The rate of urbanisation is increasing, no matter where in the world it is, and the flow of people into cities is intensifying, for it is the urban settlements with populations of under a million (in 2013) that are the first magnets for those seeking new livelihoods when their agrarian and rural non-farm livelihoods are snatched away, whether by economic policy (the rash of ‘austerity’ measures is but the new gloss put on what many of us will recall from the 1970s as ‘structural adjustment’), by conflict, natural disaster or the intensification of the impacts of a changing climate.

What are the likely demands for food placed by cities such as these, in the 1 to 2 million range of inhabitants, and whose populations have grown by 20%-30% in 2003-13? I selected Lilongwe in Malawi (population of 851,783 in 2013 and with 304,952 added in the last ten years), Matola in Mozambique (858,531 and 290,041), Pointe-Noire in Congo (887,112 and 273,674) and Nouakchott in Mauritania (847,232 and 242,038). (See ‘Yield trends are insufficient to double global crop production by 2050’.)

There are recommended dietary allowances and nutritional guidelines aplenty, and I have used, as a guide to the availability of food staples in urbanised settlements, the European Nutrition and Health Report data to obtain a ‘normalised’ view of what citizens in urbanising regions are likely to find as food available to purchase (provided it is affordable, and often it is not). The two worlds – an EU-27 median and growing cities in what are noxiously called ’emerging economies’ are not as separate as all that. In South and South-East Asia, which I am certainly more empirically familiar with, the variety of processed food available in local retail shops never fails to surprise, as does the relentlessly high rate of inflation for these goods. A recurring surprise is how homogenous the basket of processed cereals is – whether in the forms of noodles or biscuits.

The crude result is that for these four cities, the annual demand for cereals is 75,000-79,000 tons of cereals (based on 245 gm / capita / day), 96,000-100,000 tons of milk and milk products (310 gm), 49,000-51,000 tons of meat and meat products (160 gm), 39,000-41,000 tons of fresh vegetables (130 gm), 48,000-50,000 tons of fruit (155 gm), 6,200-6,400 tons of edible oil (20 gm), 17,000-18,000 tons of sugars (55 gm), and 163,000-171,000 tons of non-alcoholic beverages (colas included). Missing in my attempt here are the estimates that include dietary diversity (tubers, roots and coarse grain that supplement or partially supplant cereals). The milk products and fruit are likely to be over-estimated (the estimate for milk products in South Asia would however be similar, that for fruit in South-East Asia would be too).

But there are broader issues and concerns, which are illustrated by the following news reports concerning the cities mentioned here:

Mozambique – "over the past decade, food production per capita in Mozambique has not increased; it has actually declined slightly, and food prices have increased. Food inflation impacts the poor more than other groups since a higher percentage of their income is used to buy food."

Malawi – "the cost of maize – Malawi’s staple food – which has become unaffordable. Between June and October 2012, a 20-litre bucket of maize cost her between 500 and 750 kwacha (about US$1.50 to $2). Now it costs 3,000 kwacha ($8) a bucket."

Congo – " ‘The Congo imports almost half of the essential commodities it needs. You need to know this to understand current soaring prices. Imported products contain imported inflation,’ André Kamba, chief of staff at the Ministry of Trade and Supply, told IRIN."

Mauritania – "Harabass is one of the few men left in Thirouth: Almost all the others have left to find work in towns. Many of these men disappear altogether, others send back 5,000 ougiya (US$16) every couple of months, said villager Khadia Maissia, mother-of-five and a member of the gardening cooperative in the village."

These reports describe the conditions under which human development labours to even stand still, and against which to place this irreversible rush, all over the world, to herd populations into towns and cities even in the face of clear and stark breakdowns in the ability of societies to cope with present circumstances. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, west Africa and the Great Lakes regions, populations are being urbanised at a rate greater than 4% per year; in South, South-East and East Asia the rate is greater than 3% per year.

Moreover, for those with populations of between 1 and 2 million, which have had 0.5 million and more added to these populations in the last decade, the foremost question for citizens and planners alike ought to be: how many former cultivators have joined us? How many more plots (of 1, 2 or 3 acres) that only two years ago were used to grow maize or teff or sorghum have now become part of a new industrial zone, or mining concession? Where is the balance that we need going to come from and using how much scarce foreign exchange?

From the point of view that has become depressingly familiar – for it emerges out of numerous government sources who are coached and tutored by banking and lending consortia. That urbanisation leads to new and improved marketing (supported by media), distribution infrastructure, attracts large supermarkets (whether multi-national or domestic competitors), and results in better transportation systems (supply chain and value chain are the terms used) thereby improving access and, as they also like to remind us, enabling farmers to participate in ‘price discovery’. All this ultimately facilitates the globalisation of food consumption patterns and distributes food inflation uncaring of the dreadful consequences of such distribution.

Rapid urbanisation has a profound effect on food consumption patterns. There is usually more calories per meal, but a narrowing choice of cheap food (in contrast to a very much wider choice for an upper middle-class but which is unaffordable for labour, informal workers and seasonal migrants) and an automatic recourse to processed, ready-to-eat servings and snacks packaged for ‘convenience’ price points (which is food high in salt, fat and sugar).

Often, urban populations are considered generally more sedentary (although I can’t see how trying to commute two hours using overcrowded public transport in the monsoon can be anything other than sedentary) and therefore expend less energy. For members of households trying to make ends meet, holding more than one job is normal, and it is in the getting to and from and between jobs, that and the hardships of coping with often hostile built environments in rapidly urbanising cities, that in my view accounts for as much energy expenditure as in rural regions, for which the calorie intake is pegged higher.

Whether for Can Tho in Viet Nam or Niamey in Niger, Weihai in China or Onitsha in Nigeria, are municipalities and administrations able to judge how their populations are currently fed, and are likely to be fed? Is there enough awareness, or at all, about the rising index of the food supply chain (demanding ever more refrigeration, becoming more exposed to the effects of fuel price rise, needing to justify higher rates of return to investors, dependent on a larger network of warehouses and depots, all of which are financed unmercifully by the ‘market’) upon food staples? If there is, why is no equal recognition that this aspect of the contribution to GDP is in fact a deterioration in the urban food security of households that hover distressingly close to an urban poverty line? (The world cities data referred to can be found in this xlsx file.)

All too often, catering sensibly to the needs of urban population growth is ignored by policy makers, while economic ‘development’ (more infrastructure, more financing, more consumption, more personal mobility at the cost of public transport) is welcomed. The provisioning of food and the planning for shortening and localising food supply chains is usually abandoned by public administrators to the hard-nosed methods of the market. If the city is included, because of a large percentage of urban poor who have successfully made their voices heard and needs felt, in a national or regional subsidised feeding programme then local or municipal administration will develop at least come capacity to plan for movement of food into the city, and appreciate the causal link between an increasing population and rising demands from city wards or blocks for raw, processed or cooked food.

But there is another aspect. Let’s look at the cities data again, this time at the cities with populations – in 2013 – of under 1 million. Denpasar in Indonesia added 0.44 million, Weihai in China added 0.38 million, Vientiane in Laos added 0.38 million, Onitsha in Nigeria added 0.37 million, Kananga in D R Congo added 0.35 million, Jiaxing in China added 0.35 million, Yongin in South Korea added 0.33 million, Zunyi in China added 0.33 million, Jiujiang in China added 0.32 million and Aden in Yemen added 0.31 million. Those additions came in the ten years 2003-13 and in almost all of them, the annual population additions in the 2010-13 period (that is, in the last three years) have been at a rate faster than in the last ten years.

These numbers call into question the capacities (of cultivators and also of systems that move and transform crop into food) that can provide for the overall population of a city and the agrarian region it belongs to and is dependent upon. The subject is seldom directly dealt with in discussions about food and its provisioning, but there really is no getting away from addressing it as squarely as possible. If you live in a state or district (small country even) whose population is growing at a rate of around 2% per year (not unusual) then you are going to have to consider population growth rates on at least a quarterly basis. It is stark mathematics that will determine how much more food will have to be produced in order that all residents may be fed adequately (and have enough in stock to tide them over lean times).

A city or a metropolitan region is anchored to a generally rural, generally agrarian hinterland and there has, for let’s say 10 of the last 13 decades, been a balance of populations between that hinterland and the city, or town, and a flow of primary crop produce that has changed only slowly. Now those balances and that flow is changing at a far more rapid pace. We have perforce to understand dependency ratios (the calorie and protein needs of how many people could x hectares of land under agro-ecological and organic cultivation support with the movement of the crops limited to within y kilometres) and labour needs (See ‘Spatial interactions among ecosystem services in an urbanising agricultural watershed’). Mechanisation is an alternative that governments, like mine in India, has been loudly advocating, but the price of diesel is now at or near parity almost all around the world, hence the labour question is rather: how can socially cohesive ways in which seasonal labour can remain close to the fields be found?

For our districts then, net food producers and large food consumers (where towns are adding spatial size and numbers quickly), we still don’t have a set of ratios to guide us. The dominant historical model has been that rural areas feed the urban areas, as well as themselves. This is still so, but there is a hardening of the already socially ignorant but sadly dominant trend of macro-economics that rams through, in country after country, policy which overturns this historical model and which makes it more and more difficult for rural people to feed themselves and a few others.

Urban populations are growing too fast for any measure of sensible food security – that is, agro-ecologically sound, without genetic modification and which is organic – to keep pace. Yet these cities and towns are impelled to do so by a ‘growth’ mania that places the preservation of some rate of GDP increase as sacrosanct. This obsession has dangerously altered the dependency ratios determined by use of land and availability of willing cultivators to support a measure of population other than their own communities (See ‘Limited places provide multiple services, especially crop production and water quality’). This mania has employed the cunning stratagem of insisting that it is growth that lifts people out of poverty and that, since capital and labour is found to be most efficient when concentrated in cities (where the densities of consumption can be measured, controlled, marketed and predicted), it is cities that contribute the most to a national GDP, urbanisation (and its human fuel, economic migration) must become part of a central dogma.

For those concerned about food in and for cities, this ought to pose a monstrous problem. Cereals in all their diversity must continue to be imported into urban regions even if – as urban agriculture and urban farming networks illustrate via well-documented cases – self-sufficiency in vegetables and fruit is feasible). Where well-organised, motivated, culturally alive urban communities have taken to urban cultivation, the historical dependency ratio may be suspended, but only insofar as household food budgets and positive household food balances can be maintained (a household balance between some ‘import’ and some ‘subsistence’ from terraces, balconies, old containers, sacks and flowerpots). (See the International Urban Food Network, and Urban Food Plus and Ecocity World Summit.)

In the background are the macro-economic policies – which operate via incentives, inducements, coercion (both financial and through internal displacement, conditional employment, conditional cash transfers, and so on. One recent account, ‘China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities’ (The New York Times) has been accompanied by many others that discuss the disastrous consequences of such induced movement (they should really be called economically designed internal displacement).

About 250 million more Chinese may live in cities in the next dozen years. The rush to urbanise comes despite concerns that many rural residents cannot find jobs in the new urban areas, or are simply unwilling to leave behind a way of life that many cherish. China would see urbanisation as good because in the balance sheets of the national accounts it is shown as the primary factor which makes possible a GDP growth rate of 7% per year and above (this is the view in the planning and central government circles in India too). For those concerned with the growing of and the provisioning of food whether in tiny terraces of shanty towns or on smallholder plots in the districts, what sounds the alarm is the re-engineering, using crippled economics and blind monetary mechanisms, of the ways in which populations disperse themselves and choose to live, and to eat.

If the urban households which maintain their own seed banks and cultivate the non-cereal, non-pulses part of their food basket represent one factor of governance of food, and if the pushcart vendors and their smallholder suppliers represent another, and if such governance is acceptable to all parties, then why do we not see more of it at regional and national levels? One possible answer is that priorities in public sector agricultural research are changing very rapidly. There are new rules of global finance, free trade agreements and bilateral agreements (these are preferred because they are much quicker and can be as opaque as investors like them to be), intellectual property rights, and the consolidations and alliances in the agricultural inputs industries (seed, biotech, machinery, fertiliser, supply chain methods, retail apparatus).

National policy and international law – influenced by these new alliances (I read about a new one every other month) – work ceaselessly to keep the governance of food and cultivation away from small growers and informed consumers who are otherwise struggling to maintain precarious livelihoods; and to shift public agricultural research priorities and funding towards the development of standardised food systems and proprietary technologies. It should be the other way around, and food for and by cities (always read together with food for and by rural growers and labour, for food growers are consumers too) can come to represent a cultural autonomy that strengthens diversity of diet and nutrition, and which insulates low-income urban and rural households alike from food price inflation.