One of the most difficult things to predict in a pandemic is the impact it will have in the economy. Nobody knows with certainty how the COVID-19 will hit many countries, nor the response of each government. What is certain is that the poorest people will suffer the most, and that with their economies paralyzed, these countries could face a COVID food crisis. The lockdown measures will make it hard to put food on the table, food prices might rise and the food sovereignty of the most vulnerable could be compromised. In this scenario, Urban Agriculture might have an important role in maintaining the security of the food supply chain.

In the developed world, Urban Agriculture (UA), which refers to the production of crops and livestock within cities and towns, is performed mostly by responsible citizens who are concerned about the environment. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world like Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America, this practice is mostly carried out by the poor, and contributes to the food supply of 800 million people.

Urban agriculture allows people to consume better and more nutritious diets, reduces logistical costs, and eliminates the waste caused by long shipping routes. Low income people can have access to healthy food while saving money for groceries, to the point of even improving child nutrition, which was the case in of Kampala (Uganda).

Also, there seems to be a positive link between UA and food sovereignty. A study that compiled previous research stated that “its role (UA) should not be easily dismissed, particularly in Africa, (…) In all those countries in which agriculture provides a substantial share of income (…), and for those groups of households to which it constitutes an important source of livelihood.”

The big challenge in this moment is the global economic slowdown and the threat of a COVID food crisis. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), projecting that with one percentage point slowdown of the global economy the number of poor people would increase by 2% (14 million people), with Africa being the most affected. With the added threat to food sovereignty, UA might become more important than ever.

“We have to see COVID-19 as an opportunity to make people realize that we not only need to develop rural areas, but develop the urban areas also,” said Pedro Zea, a PhD candidate in Sustainable Agriculture from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. He has worked along Universidad de Cuenca developing a UA program for juvenile detention centers. He says that, “the way we empower them, is by teaching them how to sow and harvest, and feed themselves. (…) Apart from giving them food sovereignty urban agriculture feeds them.”

On his opinion, food sovereignty is a “big umbrella” that covers our current situation, and now, “it’s an special moment for people to realize how important local growers are for the cities”. He mentions the Landless Workers Movement that started in Brazil, and the UA projects in the middle of La Habana, Cuba as good examples of how to bring agriculture to the cities. These can be, in his own words “politically complex models for agriculture,” but they clearly demonstrate what can be done when there’s a willingness to ensure food sovereignty.

The COVID-19 has very bluntly demonstrated the critical importance of agricultural supply chains, and is a prime opportunity to reflect on ways to improve food security. By bringing agriculture to food-vulnerable urban zones, Urban Agriculture could be a key instrument for avoiding a COVID food crisis in emerging markets and beyond.

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Editor’s note: Coronavirus is a global challenge – but it also presents a unique opportunity to rethink how things are done, especially in the ag space. With all this talk of ‘essential’ businesses, we’ve clearly seen that no business is as essential as agribusiness, and to that end, it’s up to the community to invest in creative solutions. We’ve talked about the challenges of urban agriculture before, and to be clear, it’s not some kind of miracle cure, but with precisely applied technology, it could be a major difference in the fight for food sovereignty.

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