Unfed Cityworld

Flows of migrants from country to city will, if unchecked, leave insufficient people to grow our food. Few policymakers see this as a problem, as they assume that farming will become more and more mechanised, and that synthetic fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides will carry on substituting for rotations, hoes and companion planting.

Villages far from cities are often ghettos of the elderly, who may be proficient in food production but whose skills die with them. The greying of the world’s rural heartlands poses a huge question: should the long food supply chains ever rupture, for lack of fuel, water, soil, or any other essential input, there would be major trouble in the cities. The global population is expanding by some 81 million a year, while water and soil are depleting, and the supply of fuel for the whole urban superstructure is precarious.

A spate of TV programmes about the ‘real’ Brazil, shown before the 2014 football World Cup kicked off in Sao Paulo, showed viewers shanty-town favelas; families gleaning rubbish for saleable recyclables; guns, drugs and prostitution. Yet Brazil is not a ‘poor’ country. The World Bank classes it as ‘upper middle income’ with GDP of US$2.253 trillion in 2012, $11,338 for each of the 198.7 million population. One of its big cities, Curitiba, home to 1.8 million people, is a famous exemplar of sustainable design, admired for its Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network, its recycling rate of over 70%, its parks designed for leisure and to absorb floodwaters, its live-work homes, its encouragement for agriculture outside the city, and its city leaders’ capacity for problem-solving.[i]

The world would need 45 new Curitibas every year just to house the extra population. China has a plan to meet the challenge, building what are called ‘eco-cities’ but which are planted in often inhospitable landscapes, and require long, energy-intensive supply lines. The building boom is no respecter of topography – at Lanzhou in Gansu province, north-west China, the plan is to flatten some 700 low mountains to create the space for a desert metropolis.[ii]


Foshan, China: trying to cultivate polluted soils next to a factory. Farmers in China have no rights over their land, and so local government administrations, keen to make money from land dealing, can and often do expel them. Photo: South China Morning Post, published in ‘Toxic soil pollution report sparks new fears over safety of mainland’s home-grown food’, http://www.scmp.com, April 18th 2014 

One billion Chinese people are expected to live in cities by 2030, leaving only 300 million in the (much damaged) countryside. Unless there is land reform, there is little chance of farmers being able to feed the massive urban population. That is a major reason for Chinese organisations buying up arable land all over the world, including Brazil.

McKinsey & Company’s Global Institute advocates concentrated cities in China, building over 7%-8% of arable land by 2030. Dispersed cities, McKinsey argued, would cover more than 20% of arable land over the same time span.[iii] As China has only 7% of the world’s arable land, just 0.09 of a hectare per person, there is scant scope to lose any more at all. Each year since 2000, about 1% of China’s meagre total has been covered by factories and other industrial developments.

Moran Zhang lists the ailments afflicting China’s crop-growing land:

  • One-fifth of it has polluted soils.
  • Over-use of nitrogen fertilisers is turning land acidic.
  • Farmers lack incentive to improve their land, because they have no rights over it. All land belongs to the state, and local governments derive more than a quarter of their revenues from land grabs – taking land from farmers and selling it to developers. Farmers are offered minimal compensation, about 2% of current market value, and with this they have to find new homes, new ways of making a living.[iv] Disenfranchised farmers have little choice but to become city dwellers.[v]

Who will feed them and the other hundreds of millions in China’s cities? How? To rely on unfettered exports from countries in Latin America and Africa, where most of the 2.7 billion hectares which could be pressed into service for crop production are located, is surely unwise because of the negative consequences – loss of plants and wildlife in habitats currently rich, the adverse impact on climates of vegetation loss, rising demand for food from the local, fast-expanding populations, the energy costs of moving food around the world.

Ex-farmers will be living in Chinese cities, in homes currently empty – there are ghost blocks aplenty, the outcome of speculation – and in homes yet to be built, usually flats without gardens. Few planners appear to be paying attention to questions of sustainable food production, to the additional rural populations necessary to farm in ways which do not deplete soil or water, or to homes and supplementary livelihoods for these populations. Even talking about a reversal of the migration to cities is often judged as quaintly old-fashioned, even Luddite.

Pat Dodd Racher

(Extract from a chapter of a book to be published in coming months)

[i] It’s ironic, though, that manufacture of vehicles and vehicle parts is a key element of Curitiba’s economic base. German, Japanese, French and Chinese auto firms have chosen the city as a base. The young, dynamic workforce is an attraction for manufacturers and good for city finances, because these are taxpayers. Only 6% of Curitibans are aged 65+! Information from the Brookings Institution, ‘Curitiba metropolitan area profile’; ‘Sing a song of sustainable cities’, TED talk by former city mayor Jaime Lerner; and slides at http://www.slideshare.net/mrcornish/sustainable-curitiba.

[ii] ‘China to flatten 700 mountains for new metropolis in the desert’, by Jonathan Kaiman, www.theguardian.com, December 6th 2012.

[iii] ‘Preparing for China’s urban billion’, McKinsey Global Institute, March 2009.

[iv] ‘7 reasons why you don’t want to be a farmer in China’ by Moran Zhang, http://www.ibtimes.com, August 22nd 2013.

[v] City dwellers have to cope with great pollution challenges of their own. In Lanzhou, 2.4 million people were told not to drink the tap water in June 2014. It was contaminated with benzene. Source: Xinhua News Agency, June 12th 2014.


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