Planning and Food Security

A crop diversification project in Zambia

A crop diversification project in Zambia. Plan International photo

Food security is an issue that is rapidly rising up the international agenda.

As a recent paper produced by the Commonwealth Association of Planners explains, the global consensus is that population and food prices are increasing, while access to food is decreasing.

Last August the RTPI released a policy statement on Planning for Food, and then took a leading role in an on-line discussion of the topic on World Town Planning Day last November.

The American Planning Association has also issued policy guidance on “Community and Regional Food Planning” ,and as my blog last week showed, food was a key concern of “tweeters” at last month’s APA annual conference.   So should food security become a key consideration in the practice of planning across the globe?
The World Food Summit defined food security as a situation in which “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”  Planning systems have no control over the nutritious content of food that is produced, nor can they influence the underlying demography and rising expectations that shape global food markets. However, in exerting some measure of control over the conversion of land from agriculture to other uses, planners and local politicians are potentially significant actors. As is so often the case, local planning decisions are actually dealing with global concerns. Concern about food is also bringing planners back into working with health professionals, a reminder of the strong association that existed between town planning and public health a century ago.

Sustainable Agriculture and Livelihoods

The new CAP work was led by Wayne Caldwell, Professor of Rural Planning at the University of Guelph, and was put together by a small team of planners drawn from Canada, South Africa and Australia. They connect the issues to the Millennium Development Goals, and remind readers that agriculture remains a vital source of livelihoods in many Commonwealth countries, where it accounts for 30-60% of GDP. It is especially important in the many small island states in the Pacific andCaribbean. Furthermore, self-sufficiency is the only means to achieve food security for many in poorer, still rural Commonwealth countries. This raises yet again the fundamental questions about who has access to land and about security of tenure.

Professor Caldwell and his colleagues point to the need for sustainable agriculture. By this they mean that food security cannot be guaranteed by the kind of industrialised production methods favoured in the second half of the last century. Food production needs to be done in ways that conserve natural resources and biodiversity and avoid environmental pollution. The authors argue that “Conflict between environmental management, food production and economic growth is one of the biggest threats to sustainable development.” Land with agricultural potential is limited and is often located on the fringe of rapidly spreading urban areas. The report says that “it is crucial to protect suitable arable land.”

What can planners do?

The CAP report notes that environmental issues, such as water availability and quality, drought, desertification and climate change, are prevalent in both developing and developed countries in the Commonwealth. It calls for better integration of land and water management. While it argues that planners can have a critical role in the preservation of land for food production, it also calls for them to look beyond their traditional regulatory focus and engage with communities and with economic development. Examples are rural development approaches that promote agri-tourism, farm gate sales, farmers’ markets, local branding and incentives for farmers to deal directly with restaurants. There is also scope for food festivals and for active support for urban agriculture and community gardens.

Caldwell and his colleagues issue a “call to action”. They recognise that the huge diversity within the Commonwealth means there cannot be a single set of policy responses. Nevertheless they make the case that food security is something that now needs to be on the agenda of planners whether they are grappling with the low density sprawl so common in countries like Australia, Canada and South Africa, or facing the explosive urban growth found, for example in much of Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Planners need to network internationally to share strategies and good practices.

While the paper is a very valuable first step to putting the issue on the Commonwealth agenda, it arguably understates the extent to which practicing planners in rapidly urbanizing countries find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Quite simply, the regulatory systems are too weak and the drivers of urban growth are too strong for the protection of all agricultural land to work. Planners are a scarce resource and need to act in a very strategic way to identify and protect the rural land that can be conserved. Depending on the culture, land tenure and the form that urbanization takes, urban agriculture may be a significant part of the process of land conversion: it is important then that plans do not seek to eradicate such micro-production. Densification and compact cities clearly have a part to play in affluent societies addicted to high levels of personal space around their homes. Similarly, in Asia very high urban densities have been achieved. However, high-rise living does depend on secure supplies of electricity, something that remains elusive in many countries, including oil-richNigeria, for example.

Perhaps, the most important message is the basic one about who has access to land and how far the market decides on how land is used. Statutory planning sought to intrude local politicians into that equation, but politicians usually find it hard to resist the benefits that can accrue from land conversion. If we want food security, is it time to chew over some other forms of land tenure and land taxation?

The authors of the report were Wayne Caldwell and Therese Ludlow from Guelph University, Anneliza Collett from the Land Use and Soil Management Directorate in South Afrca’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and Ian Sinclair, Principal Consultant at Edge Land Planning and Fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia.