Urban agriculture boosts food security

LETTERS: By 2050, urban areas are expected to house two-thirds of the global population of approximately 10 billion people.

While cities are hubs of economic growth and technological advancement, rapid urbanisation can lead to significant health problems and social inequality such as overnutrition, malnutrition, poverty and overcrowding.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also demonstrated how vulnerable cities are to complex and unexpected risks and crises.

Many cities have become epicentres of the pandemic, disrupting the food supply chain and causing food costs to rise and/or food shortages.

It is worth noting that urban areas experience generally warmer temperatures than their non-urbanised surroundings, known as the "urban heat island" effect.

As a result, more energy is consumed for cooling buildings, which, in turn, causes more greenhouse gases to be emitted, thus accelerating climate change. So, in the face of these multifaceted challenges, how do we feed a hungrier and warmer urban world?

Although there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution to urban food insecurity, one viable approach is the transformation of food systems by growing diverse crops, which can improve productivity and soil fertility. For example, growing legumes (such as beans and peas) can benefit cropping systems and the environment because these plants work naturally with microbes in the soil to perform a process called nitrogen fixation.

This process converts nitrogen from the air into different chemical forms that are absorbed by plants to grow and replenish them in soil. Legumes are also considered affordable plant-based sources of dietary proteins.

In recent years, some underutilised legumes have been promoted as future protein or meat alternatives such as winged beans (locally known as kacang botol or kacang botor).

Once known as the "poor man's crop", they are now recognised as a valuable weapon in the global fight against hunger and malnutrition.

Given the vast potential of legumes, from a multipurpose crop to a protein alternative, our current interdisciplinary project (The Hot-City Beans Project) aims to create innovative solutions for farming legumes in tropical cities in face of climate change.

This includes developing a model for urban farming using the thermodynamics of open systems, with the aid of artificial intelligence, in elucidating the interactions between urban legumes and their associated microbes to urban-climatic stress, and enhancing understanding of local social enterprise ecosystems by establishing a network of communities researching socio-economic empowerment.

Transformative urban agriculture is complex and multifaceted, which involves aspects such as ecology, economics and social factors.

Thus, it is crucial to establish a dynamic, integrated network capable of bridging the knowledge gap between different actors, particularly between researchers designing climate-resilient urban systems and the farmers who will use and manage these systems.

To design a world with sustainable food systems, we must consider how nature works, especially how different organisms in an ecosystem interact — a viewpoint shared by world-renowned natural historian Sir David Attenborough.


Senior lecturer,

Institute of Biological Sciences,

Faculty of Science, Universiti Malaya

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times

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