TW Viewpoint | Are Cities Going To Starve Us

August 14, 2019 | Michael Heykoop

It is common to hear older individuals quipping that "kids these days don’t even know where food really comes from”, that “they think it just comes from the grocery store." As metropolitan areas like Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto continue to expand into nearby agricultural areas; we have to ask ourselves a question. Are mega cities good for the planet, or are they going to starve us?


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If you were going to build a city, where do you think you would build it? Somewhere warm, green, and with plenty of water nearby you might even think to yourself “somewhere that food can grow well”. We are told that that eating local is more sustainable, and better for the environment. Well, there’s a catch with that last bit…but we'll get to that in a moment.

If these were some of your thoughts, then you would likely have decided to build in many of the same locations as today's biggest cities. Before cars, it wasn’t just convenient, it was necessary to live very close to your food source. Many of the world’s biggest cities are surrounded by the most fertile land. Transportation was key as well, meaning cities often sprung up near navigable waterways and open plains facilitating the movement of resources over land and water.

Much of the Greater Toronto Area covers what was once one of Canada’s greatest fruit tree producing regions. Looking across the border to the United States shows many examples of cities sprawling into the countryside. A NASA study looking at major US cities has this to say in regards to the impact of city location on agricultural production:

While cities provide vital habitat for human beings to thrive, it appears U.S. cities have been built on the most fertile soils, lessening contributions of these lands to Earth's food web and human agriculture...

Though cities account for just 3% of continental U.S. land area, the food and fiber that could be grown there rivals current production on all U.S. agricultural lands, which cover 29% of the country. (Krishna Ramanujan, "Cities Built on Fertile Lands Affect Climate," NASA.gov, February 11, 2004)

That means that half of the theoretical agricultural capacity of the United States has been paved over by its’s biggest cities! While much of the nation’s largest crop, corn, goes into the production of ethanol rather than being utilized as food. 40% of corn crop goes to production ethanol. (Jonathan Foley, "It's Time To Rethink America's Corn System," ScientificAmerican.com, March 5, 2013)

Another study on the subject referenced by The Guardian newspaper, sought to map out the future expansion of cities into agricultural areas globally:

Our future crops will face threats . . . from the massive expansion of cities, a new study warns. By 2030, it’s estimated that urban areas will triple in size, expanding into cropland and undermining the productivity of agricultural systems that are already stressed by rising populations and climate change.

Roughly 60% of the world’s cropland lies on the outskirts of cities—and that’s particularly worrying, the report authors say, because this peripheral habitat is, on average, also twice as productive as land elsewhere on the globe. (Emma Bryce, "Growing Mega-Cities Will Displace Vast Tracts of Farmland by 2030, Study says," The Guardian, December 27, 2016")

Once again we find our most productive agricultural land faced with the likelihood of being paved over for shopping malls, office buildings and condominiums. Many in prosperous western nations haven’t known severe food shortages since World War II, but food supply is a problem for a significant portion of earth’s population.

According to the Food Aid Foundation:

Some 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. That's about one in nine people on earth. ("Hunger Statistics," FoodAidFoundation.org, Accessed July 17, 2019)

While increased mechanization of farm equipment, along with modern agricultural practices produce greater yields, we are still faced with challenges to the global food supply. Periodic famine and drought, along with the scourges of war dictate that we not only need to grow food enough to feed ourselves, but also for times of hardship.

With all the talk of climate change and its impact on both us and on our food supply, whether you believe in anthropogenic warming, or even a coming solar minimum induced cooling, we might first consider the pressing issue of protecting our farmland from being turned into skyscrapers and warehouses.

If we don’t stop and consider the impact this development has on our sources for food, it won’t be long until the troubles of famine heard of in other parts of world comes knocking on our door to.

Major farmlands are being lost to city expansion each year

What will happen if this trend continues?

Watch Are Cities Going To Starve Us? on YouTube at Tomorrow's World Viewpoint