Cities creating food security crisis through reliance on imports

Cities – both rich and poor - face soaring ecological footprints as well as heightened risk of disruptions from their high reliance on food imports

For the majority of us who live in, or near, cities, food seems a reliable entity. From the moment we leave our home we are presented with food options; the street vendor, the cafe, the vending machine, the superstore.

Yet its omnipresence may be presenting us with an illusion of security, according to recently published research, which suggests cities are ignoring the ecological and political threats to their food supply.

Observers have long fretted about the vulnerability of food supply chains to cities. In Empires of Food, Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas describe the collapse of Rome as it struggled to cope with declining harvests, due to soil degradation and changing climate.

From a peak of about one million residents in 300 AD, Rome’s population fell to 400,000 a mere century later. 

Feeding our mega cities

In London, 81% of the 6.9 million tonnes of food consumed is estimated to have been imported from outside the UK, with most of the agricultural land around the city now given over to refuse disposal, kennels, equestrian centres, golf courses and driving ranges.

While for Tokyo, the amount of food sourced from within its immediate region has fallen from 41% in 1965 to 27% in 2005.

Both cities, like many others, rely largely on sea and road transport to maintain a constant supply of food. It’s a just-in-time system that gives little room for error.

“Imagine that the petrol stations ran dry. The trucks would stop rolling. The supermarket shelves would be bare within three days. We would be nine meals away from anarchy,” a report from the New Economics Foundation has warned in reference to the UK.

Just how stretched a supply chain cities are relying on has been highlighted by a group of scientists who have mapped the food systems of Canberra, Copenhagen and Tokyo.

Since 1965, all three capital cities have seen large reductions in the percentage of demand met by agriculture within or surrounding the city region.

“A lot of it is the kinds of foods we now like to eat,” says study lead author John Porter. “In Copenhagen, the diversity of diet has increased extraordinarily, as well as its unseasonality.”

Our growing food footprint

Falling local provision and growing imports has corresponded with an increase in the land – as well as water, soil fertility and pollination – effectively imported to feed cities.

The study found Japan imported wheat from 600,000 hectares of foreign farmland to meet the demand of their capital and surrounding region in 2005. This was mainly from Australia, Canada and the US. While the production of pork in Denmark is heavily reliant on imported animal feed from South America.

Countries including the UK have argued that self-provision is no guarantee of food security, especially where they are still reliant on imported fertilisers and animal feed. Instead, a flexible supply chain is the best method of spreading risk.

Risks of collapse

Just how reliable these supply chains will be in the face of political and ecological pressures, including climate change, soil degradation and water scarcity, is questioned by the authors.

“If a government has a choice of following the rules of the WTO and being a good trading nation or domestic food riots then I know which they are going to choose,” says Porter, who believes cities need a balance of food exports and imports.

The cities most at risk are likely to be in the developing world, suggests his study, with their fast-growing populations and lower purchasing power. However, the authors warn, economic power is no guarantee of food security.

“Urban consumers need to be aware of their dependence on rural producers across the planet and they need to support food production systems that fairly and sustainably reward them,” says study co-author Robert Dyball.

“If landscapes are not maintained for producing food – and that includes the social viability of the farmer as well as their ecological capacity to so do – then we are all in a fix. Ultimately you can’t eat money.

“Yes, Tokyo will out-bid Kinshasa as markets tighten, but ultimately it depends on landscapes that are not under its sovereign jurisdiction and that entails a degree of risk,” adds Dyball.