Urbanisation is increasingly shifting the impacts of malnutrition from rural to urban areas. One in three stunted under-five children out of 155 million across the world now lives in cities and towns. Not only will urban land area triple globally between 2000 to 2030, the projected expansion will take place on some of the world’s most productive croplands. Not only will urban land area triple globally between 2000 to 2030, the projected expansion will take place on some of the world’s most productive croplands, according to a 2016 study. Asia and Africa alone will account for over 80% of global cropland loss. Asia’s 3% is world’s highest absolute loss, leading to a 6% annual food production loss. Currently around 60% of cropland around towns and smaller cities have irrigation facilities and are twice as productive.
China’s cropland losses between 2000 and 2030 are calculated to be 5-6 %, adding up to 9 million hectares and translating into as high as one-tenth of food production loss. India’s absolute urban area expansion until 2030 would take over around 4 million hectares, half that of China. The South Asian nation will lose 2% production by 2030, mainly because the nature of its urbanisation will be more in the shape of small towns and 100,000-population cities, regions which would for the time being continue to grow food and possess rural-urban linkages for potential sustainability.
Indian experts, however, said India’s infrastructure developments and land use change in favour of industries and mining is already severely affecting the food and nutritional security of the country’s poorest, including many of the 104 million partly forest-dependent indigenous population.
Degrading land productivity, deepening impacts of changes in climate, conflict, and food insecurity, poverty and lack of livelihood opportunities are driving mostly the rural poor into towns and cities, with projections that just 13 years from now, 5 billion people will be living in the world’s urban areas. While the urban population is forecast to double within these 30 years (starting in 2000), the area taken over will triple, increasing by 1.2 million square kilometers, says the Global Land Report 2017.
By 2050, 56% of Asia’s population will be urban. China crossed the halfway mark in 2012, India will in 2050. This major shifting of the character of a population, the character of its economic activity, from being predominantly rural to becoming urban is seen to catapult – particularly China and India – to global economic leadership. But its urban growth engines could be riding on a huge malnourished rural migrant population.
With over 65% of its population below the age of 35, India is set to supply more than half of the potential workforce over the coming decade in Asia, a recent study said. Over the last two decades, India’s urban population increased from 217 million to 377 million and is expected to reach 600 million, or 40% of the 1.5 billion population, by 2031. This demographically-powered economic growth is bound to see a huge rural-urban migration. Hundreds of ‘smart’ cities are already underway to capitalise on this migrating workforce. An industrial corridor is being planned between the financial hub of Mumbai and the capital New Delhi, which will develop as many as eight new manufacturing cities across six states. India constructed 20,000 km of new and upgraded roads between 2012 and 2017 to improve transport systems. An acute shortage of 18 million urban housing units across India in 2012 has led the government to convert the city fringes for expansion, to cite only a few urban infrastructural projects.
Rural marginal landholders, the family farmers, compelled to abandon their food producing role, migrate to urban centres to join instead the growing millions of consumers. Where once they grew their own food, kept aside for their own needs first and the remainder sold to urban food chains, and reached out to the natural ecosystem in hard times, these farmers are migrating into an economic structure where access to cash alone determines their food security.
Poor urban households in many developing countries spend over half their earnings on food, studies find. Although in cities, food is available year-round, a growing number of urban poor face a daily struggle to feed their families. Price fluctuations, sometimes of staples which are increasingly being imported from other parts of the world, hit the poor hardest.
Many city-dwellers in Asia, and in India specifically, particularly men when they migrate alone, have limited time and no place to cook or store groceries, relying increasingly on street foods. Poor shelter, lack of sanitation and hygiene in slums, and insufficient family and community support – which were woven into the rural social fabric – further compound the problems of the urban poor. Under-nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are the result.
Cropland loss can be compensated by the global food trade ie importing food but its impacts are borne mainly by the urban poor. Agricultural intensification and expanding into grazing commons and less productive land can compensate for food production loss. In South Asia, however, much of the suitable land is already under intensification. With climate change already adversely affecting yields, further intensification will be counter-productive.