The spectre of widespread hunger could return to haunt some of the world’s largest cities as a result of climate change, a new report warns.
It says the combination of rising populations, soaring food prices and uncertain harvests will impact heavily on what it calls the ‘urban poor’, who do not have direct access to food.
The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) study argues there is too much focus on rural food production and not enough on ensuring poor people can access and afford food.
“Food security is back on the agenda thanks to rising prices and the threat that climate change poses to agricultural production,” says the report’s author Dr Cecilia Tacoli.
“But policies that focus on rural food production alone will not tackle the rising food insecurity in urban areas. We also need policies that improve poor people’s ability to access and afford food, especially in urban areas.”
Climate change impacts are expected to affect harvests and also the systems that people use to transport, store and buy and sell food.
Most people in urban areas must buy their food and this makes the urban poor particularly at risk.
Any climate-induced disruption to food production, transport and storage – either in the urban area itself or in distant farmland – can affect food supplies and prices in urban areas.
“The journey that food takes from a rural producer to an urban consumer involves many steps,” says Dr Tacoli.
“It must travel through formal and informal systems as it is stored, distributed and sold. Each one of these steps is a point of potential vulnerability to climate change. For consumers, this will mean sharp and sudden increases in food prices”
The report highlights the link between income poverty and food insecurity in urban areas.
For most low-income urban citizens food represents a sizeable portion of the money they spend.
Even small increases in price would therefore have big impacts on food security, with citizens reducing the amount and quality of the food they buy.
For the residents of informal urban settlements, food insecurity is also the consequence of a lack of space to store and cook food, lack of time to shop and prepare meals, inadequate access to clean water and often non-existing sewage systems.
These settlements are disproportionately affected by floods, typhoons, heat waves and other impacts of climate change because they tend to be located in areas more exposed to these events, and because they lack the most basic infrastructure.
Tacoli says that governments must rise to these challenges by ensuring that policies can protect the urban poor from food insecurity linked to rising prices, inadequate living conditions and the effects of climate change in both rural and urban areas.
Decent and stable employment is essential but not sufficient: adequate infrastructure and housing and access to formal and informal markets are just as important.