Invest Now to Nourish The Cities of Tomorrow


We are living in the midst of an unparalleled human migration from the farm to the city, one that is so massive, it may be hard to see.

Today, about half of the world’s 7.4 billion people are estimated to live in urban areas. By midcentury, that is projected to rise to nearly 70 percent, meaning there will be about 3 billion additional city dwellers. This is akin to adding 150 cities the size of Beijing, Mumbai or Mexico City to the planet. Another way to think of it is a population nearly 10 times the size of the United States moving into concentrated areas.

It will be a big task to sustainably nourish all these people living far from where most food is grown, both for reasons that are often discussed and some that aren’t.

It’s no secret that as incomes rise, people shift their diets to more resource-intense, perishable foods like animal protein and fresh produce. Incomes tend to be higher for urban populations than rural ones, so urbanites will generally eat more of these foods.

But their diets will diverge from their rural counterparts in other ways, too. For example, people living in cities tend to eat more food prepared away from home, something that can lead to greater food waste.

And supporting diverse urban diets will have vast repercussions for the transportation of food, from cold chains to food safety controls to trade barriers at borders. Advances in data-driven logistics and upgraded infrastructure will be necessary in many parts of the world to nourish these residents of rapidly expanding cities. No less important will be smart, comprehensive trade agreements that allow both food and technology to move where they’re needed.

Perhaps least understood – but arguably most important – is the fact that the food system supporting these billions of people will require us to painstakingly protect crop yields from pests and diseases that constantly seek to undercut past gains. Climate change is an unknown variable threatening to take an additional toll. All of this requires the world to invest more in food and agriculture R&D – not tomorrow, but today.

As I wrote with several colleagues in Nature last year, R&D in food and agriculture is undergoing a sea change of its own. Big shifts are occurring with regard to where research is conducted, with correspondingly big implications for the future of food.

Our study showed that for the first time in history, middle-income countries like China and Brazil surpassed high-income countries like the United States and my native Australia in terms of public-sector investment in food and agriculture R&D. If high-income countries want to continue to lead in nourishing the world, they will have to change their investment trajectory, which has been declining in real terms for more than a decade. The results of today’s investment decisions will take a long time to play out, but they will be profound when they arrive.

Even more critically, low-income countries are at risk of falling further behind, potentially creating a world of scientific haves and have-nots. Today, roughly 70 percent of global investment in food and agriculture R&D happens in just 10 countries. Yet many of the fastest-growing cities in the years ahead will be in low-income countries across Africa and Asia.

Sustainably nourishing these cities will require stronger cross-border collaboration among all types of institutions, to get technology and know-how redeployed to areas of need. Whether it is national governments, companies in the private sector like Cargill, or academic institutions like the University of Minnesota where I do my research, everyone will have to get involved and work together.

The year 2050 may seem like a long way off, but it’s not. The timeframe from when research is conducted to when its impact is felt in the field and the supermarket is measured in decades, not years. What we’re doing today has implications for global food and agriculture 20, 30 and even 40 years from now.

In other words, when it comes to nourishing tomorrow’s much larger urban population, we have no time to lose.

Dr. Pardey is a professor in the department of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, and director of the University’s International Science and Technology Practice and Policy (InSTePP) center.