Urban Farming in Developing Vs. Developed Countries

According to the World Bank, the urban population accounts for 3.5 billion people and is expected to reach 5 billion by 2030, with two thirds of the global population living in cities. This phenomenon, which occurs consequently to population growth and the new wave of urbanization (mainly in developing countries), affects global urban development and poses new challenges to the food supply systems.

The Urban Farming Framework

Indeed, increasing urban demand requires higher agricultural production, as a shortage can threaten food security and obstruct access to agricultural resources. In addition, urban demand, especially in high-income countries, is shifting towards higher quality and more sustainable food products.

In this framework, urban farming will play a role of great and growing relevance, as its implementation has the potential to improve both food security and food safety. Urban farming would also provide social, economic and environmental benefits to cities. Currently, agriculture is increasingly spreading in urban and suburban areas and, according to the Food & Agriculture Organization, or FAO, urban agriculture is practiced by more than 800 million people worldwide.

Although urban farming is growing in both developed and developing countries, it’s important to understand that its diffusion in each is driven by completely different factors which require different approaches.

Urban Farming in Low Income Countries

In low income countries, urban farming is often practiced by the poor as a means of combating a lack of purchasing power, a shortfall which can lead to inadequate and unreliable access to food. Indeed, urban agriculture provides food for family consumption and, through the development of commercial production systems, it can be a great source of income.

If this production grows, so does the supply of local markets, which can provide fresh and more affordable food to local communities. This shift would support better diets and a lower risk of food shortages for local inhabitants. In addition to providing food and jobs, urban farming supports the maintenance and recovery of the local ecology and can contribute to urban sanitation by recycling waste.


Urban farmers prepping new garden beds. Image via FAO.

However, despite the previously discussed advantages of urban farming, these initiatives don’t always succeed. That’s because growing food requires skills, time, and natural and economic resources. Often in poorer countries the populace lacks education in agriculture, or they lack access to the financial or natural resources (as in land, seeds, and water) needed to set up production.

These people may also lack the time necessary to invest in farming, as they may need a paid job in order to buy food immediately. In addition, this lack of resources makes farmers much more vulnerable to calamities, such as a heat wave, increasing the risk of these activities. Moreover, farmers can have difficulties accessing distribution networks, for example due to a lack of infrastructure.

Hence, the support of local and international institutions is fundamental to helping urban farming development in these countries. As a response to this need, the FAO has provided a framework for addressing the different issues related to urban farming development – this framework is known as the “4-S Strategy.” The strategy recommendations are:

  1. Securing access to essential resources and inputs (land, water, seeds, agrochemicals, fertilizers and more)
  2. Securing high product quality and safety (according to international norms and standards, as well as through the implementation of good agricultural practices, including environmental and resources management)
  3. Securing policy decisions, institutional context and appropriation by all stakeholders from government officials to growers (including micro-credit and more)
  4. Securing market outlets (promotion of consumption, nutrition education, distribution networks, marketing strategies and more)

Institutions, by following these FAO suggestions, can pave the road for a faster diffusion of more sustainable and efficient urban agriculture in developing economies. Therefore, it’s important to strengthen the collaboration between NGOs and local governments in order to implement the most appropriate policies and provide the required financial support.

Urban Farming in Developed Countries

As seen in the following chart, the share of food expenditure in developed countries is just a small part of household spending. For example, in the US food constitutes just 6% of household expenses, which means that urban farming plays a minimal role in improving the food security. Therefore, if the demand for food is higher than the local production, or if there are price shocks, there are no major risks to food security, and citizens can still afford to access to food (thanks to increased purchasing power).


Food share of Household spending. Image via The Economist.

Despite that huge distinction seen in developing countries, in developed ones the urban agriculture cannot only be reduced to the people’s willingness to do a good thing. The broader benefits it would provide are more than enough to justify its implementation. As reported in a 2013 research study by Hoi-Fei Mok, in addition to food supply contributions, the main advantages of urban farming include:

  • Reduced food transportation distance
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Potentially reduced urban heat
  • Improved physical and mental health
  • Improved aesthetics
  • Community building
  • Employment opportunities
  • Improved local land prices
  • Shortened supply chains
  • Provision of habitats for wildlife
  • Waste recycling

However, many issues can hold back its implementation. Its most relevant challenges are land scarcity and high upfront costs.

In situations such as those, alternative farming methods, such as the vertical farming, can be very effective in order to increase the available farming space. Similarly, the implementation of hydroponic and aeroponic farming processes can guarantee better yields than traditional ones without requiring large urban spaces, making their production chains more sustainable.

Next to focusing on improving yields, in order to make these activities profitable, producers have to highlight the quality and the benefits of their products, as in with labels and quality certifications. Indeed, in contrast to what happens in developing countries, in developed ones there’s often a large share of customers who are willing to pay more to eat healthier and more sustainable food. In addition, local authorities can do a lot to boost the development of the sectors allocating common spaces and providing loans at concessional terms.

Currently, urban farming has had successful implementation in many cities worldwide such as in New York and London. Thanks to the rising support from urban citizen and local authorities, urban farming is expected to continue its growth trend into the following years.

Featured Image: Rice farmers in Indonesia for a minuscule wage to till land that is not their own. Image via Danumurthi Mahendra.

About The Author

Adriano Pilloni
Adriano, 25 years old, is a Master Graduate in Environmental Economics and Development from Rome Three University (Italy). During his education he developed a deep knowledge on Economics and a keen interest on Economic Theory with particular regard to energy markets, sustainability, environmental and agricultural issues. He has been proactive during his university time doing many projects and being elected by the students as Advisor of the Economics Dept. of his University. With two other students he developed a project on Food Sustainability which has been selected in the top 30 of the international Barilla contest "BCFN YES! 2013". He did the 2014 European edition of Extreme Blue, IBM's premier internship program for both graduate and undergraduate students. Now he is working as Junior Power and Gas Analyst at GDF SUEZ Italy.