Blog Post

Urbanization Poses Challenge, Opportunity for Food Security

An estimated 122 million more people around the world faced hunger in 2022 than in 2019, according to the 2023 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report, released in December. While progress in reducing hunger was made in Asia and Latin America between 2021 and 2022, hunger continued to rise in Africa, as well as in Western Asia and the Caribbean.

If these trends continue, the report’s authoring organizations[1] warn, the world will not be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger by 2030.

Global and Regional Trends

Over the past several years, conflict, climate change, and external shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturns have consistently been identified as key drivers of rising global hunger and food and nutrition insecurity. These factors are likely to continue to varying extents around the world in the coming years. The 2023 SOFI report projects that under the current global scenario, nearly 600 million people will experience chronic hunger in 2030—23 million more than if the war in Ukraine had not happened and 119 million more if neither the Ukraine war nor the COVID-19 pandemic had occurred.

Over 33 percent of adult rural populations experienced moderate or severe food insecurity in 2022, compared with 28.8 percent in peri-urban areas and 26 percent in urban areas. While hunger also continues to disproportionately impact women, the food insecurity gender gap closed slightly at the global level, from 3.8 percentage points in 2021 to 2.4 percentage points in 2022.

Healthy diets remain unaffordable to more than 3.1 billion people, or 42 percent of the world’s population. An estimated 148.1 million children under five experienced stunting in 2022, while 45 million experienced wasting and 37 million were overweight.

As in previous years, Africa remains particularly hard hit by worsening hunger and nutrition insecurity. One in five people on the continent faced hunger in 2022—more than twice the global average.

The Role of Urbanization

The likelihood of continued impacts from conflict, climate change, and external shocks in the coming years means that policymakers, development professionals, and other agricultural value chain actors need to better adapt to this “new normal.” The transformation of agricultural value chains and agrifood systems has been recognized as a critical piece of such adaptation.

Ensuring this transformation, however, will require expanded understanding and consideration of the impacts of urbanization—a “mega trend” identified by the 2023 SOFI report as a factor of increasing importance for global and national agrifood system functioning and, in turn, food and nutrition security.

By 2050, an estimated seven in ten people around the world will live in urban environments. Rapidly increasing urbanization brings with it significant challenges for food and nutrition security and poverty reduction, including:

  • greater availability of and reliance on cheaper and less nutritious packaged convenience foods,
  • insufficient access to and availability of fresh, nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables,
  • loss of land and natural resources, and
  • exclusion of smallholder farmers and producers from more formalized, modernized value chains.

Growing urbanization could also bring potential boons for food security, however. Longer, more formalized agricultural chains create new opportunities for off-farm employment, and farmers may have better access to agricultural inputs and extension services. Both rural and urban populations could also benefit by an increase in both the quality and quantity of foods available to them.  

Harnessing these opportunities—and managing the challenges—will mean viewing geographic areas as more of a continuum rather than as distinct region, the report suggests.

As urban and peri-urban areas expand, the division between “rural” and “urban” is changing. Rural, urban, and peri-urban areas are more interconnected than ever before, which means shifts in trends related to food consumption and production. For example, the report finds that in 11 African countries studied, both urban and rural households purchase a large amount of the food they consume. This finding belies more traditional beliefs suggesting that rural households do not make many food purchases but rather rely on their own production. Policymakers and other value chain actors and stakeholders need to better understand the new realities of this rural-urban continuum in order to support successful, sustainable agrifood system transformation.

To leverage the opportunities presented by increasing urbanization and interlinkages among rural, peri-urban, and urban areas, the 2023 SOFI report suggests, greater investment in infrastructure, public goods, and capacity-building across all geographic areas is needed. Particular focus should be paid to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) along the entire agrifood value chain, as well as to the development of technologies to increase the availability and affordability of nutritious foods. Finally, any approach to modernizing and governing agrifood systems should be adapted to the local, regional, and national setting in order to ensure support for smallholder farmers, women, youths, and other vulnerable populations.


Sara Gustafson is a freelance communications consultant.

[1] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Food Programme (WFP)