Food security stories 3 - countries and regions with disrupted link between urban and rural development



The mission of Wageningen MFC is providing good food for everyone in an urbanizing world. Food security is always one of the major fields of our business. We help our clients solving food security problems, with a co-design approach and implementing the six principles of the MFC concept.


As the current war in Ukraine and the sanctions being imposed on Russia accelerate the rise of agri-food commodity prices and disruption of agri-food logistics and supply, national and regional food security is once again becoming a priority on different countries’ agenda.


Wageningen MFC developed diagnostic instruments to position a country or region on a scale ranging from completely import-dependent to completely self-sufficient (and even exporting substantial surpluses). We categorize four types of countries or regions, based on our project experience and our research on food security:

  1. Countries and regions with unavailability of land and/or unsuitability of climate,
  2. Countries and regions with massive population pressure,
  3. Countries and regions with a disrupted link between urban and rural development,
  4. Countries and regions with surplus agri-food production.

It is necessary to mention that every region or country has its unique situation, and that the solutions that we are co-designing are tailor-made for improving a specific country or region’s food security to surpass a critical threshold for survival in ‘worst case’ situations, whether it is caused by extreme (or worsening) climate conditions, lack of space, high demographic pressure, general economic under-development, or geo-political tensions. 


Here, we elaborate our general view and strategies for each type of country or region to improve food security. 


Type 3: Countries and regions with disrupted link between urban and rural development


Until now, the third type – countries whose food security is threatened by a mis-match between urban and rural development – did not receive as much of our attention as the other types. Our roots as developers of agroparks are responsible for this relative neglect. However, we see more and more need to ask ourselves whether solutions we have developed over time may also be applicable here.


In common economic theory there is a virtuous circle linking urban to rural development. In order to become more successful economically, rural areas need to modernise. Fewer, but larger farms can attract the investment means to mechanise, use more fertiliser and better crop protection, employ more skilled workers. These farms are more productive, show higher turnover, and are more profitable while at the same time employing less people. Once this process is gathering speed, a ‘lucky coincidence’ is industrialisation as the start of a similar modernisation in the urban sphere. Labour no longer needed – and hence no longer employable – in the countryside is eagerly welcomed in cities to staff the upcoming industries. Urban populations start growing at a fast pace, requiring much more food to sustain them, food that is readily available as a result of the enhanced productivity of the modernising countryside. When everything goes well, this virtuous circle continues threading development cycle to development cycle in an ever upwards moving spiral, to finally reach the levels of urban industrialisation – and later on still more sophisticated service sector development – as we know them now in the wealthiest parts of the world. At the same time, the levels of productivity in agriculture in the surrounding rural areas, both in terms of land and labour, are ten to a hundred times higher than in a past dominated by purely subsistence farming. The Netherlands is a good example, with a global reputation of advanced agri-food development, making it the present major food exporter even as a small country. It has built an eco-system of agri-food cooperation, technology innovation and knowledge development, of which we briefly elaborated an example around the Einthoven region, please see here.


To support such an ideal match of urban and rural development, most of the solutions that we propose for countries with a lack of productive land, or with excessive population pressure, are applicable here as well. The same holds for solutions to support the development of countries that are well positioned for surplus production that can fill the gap for countries with food provision deficits.


However, such an ideal match doesn’t always materialise. Often urban and rural development are ‘out of synch’. Sometimes urban industrial and service sector development goes too fast, attracting so much labour from the countryside that the modernisation process of the countryside is threatened by the loss of young change-minded people. The population staying back in the rural area is fast aging, sapping the potential for transformation. Rural collapse is the result, with a serious shortfall of the capacity to feed the growing urban population from the surrounding countryside and forcing cities to rely on imports instead. We have seen examples in for instance China, Mexico and India. Here on top of technical modernisation solutions, in the first place a radical turn-around of the image of agriculture is needed: young people must discover how ‘sexy’ working in modern agriculture can be. No longer filthy, back-breaking, poorly rewarded work at ungodly hours and in inclement weather, but clean, high-tech, challenging, generously paid, especially for those who work as independent entrepreneurs. Spade and hoe replaced by I-phone and lap-top. Next to offering modernisation solutions, we also look for cooperation models and Education and Training programs to let young people discover the sexy-ness of modern agriculture and make them participate in this development.


Inside of a modern greenhouses

When the mismatch works in the opposite direction, the remedy is much more difficult. When lagging urban development cannot absorb superfluous rural workers, and a growing and gradually more wealthy urban population doesn’t materialise that can pay for more and better-quality food, the modernisation of the countryside gets stuck. No land is freed to enable the jump in scale that is needed for modernisation. No revenues are generated from which the necessary investments can be made. People in rural areas have no real choice: they can stay where they are sinking ever deeper into poverty because an already overpopulated countryside cannot offer them a livelihood; or they move anyhow, even though, because of lack of regular work, cities cannot offer them a livelihood either. Of course, stimulating industrial and service sector development in urban areas is the fundamental solution to this mis-match, but as long as this doesn’t succeed – or doesn’t go fast enough – there is not much that can be done than trying to improve agricultural productivity, even though basic conditions for such an improvement are not fulfilled. We don’t have ready-made recipes for such a situation yet, though we are trying. On the academic level, we worked with a few promising Master students who devoted their thesis to the investigation of more fundamental reasons behind the challenges of improving smallholder farmer’s productivity in Ethiopia, and to explore the motivations behind rural-urban migration in Uganda. On the project level, we have elaborated a few Feasibility Studies in the Sub-Saharan region, and also started to cooperate with a number of entrepreneurial initiatives in Africa and Latin America that aim at enhancing productivity and quality of typical smallholders. We will keep you posted of our progress in this field.