The Great Divide

Climate change, inequality, malnutrition and food insecurity — how the rural-urban divide shapes our world.

Photo by Cam Adams on Unsplash.

Over 10 000 years ago, humans transitioned from a nomadic lifestyle to sedentary communities. We don’t know what came first — permanent settlements or agriculture — but widespread adoption of crop cultivation and later, animal husbandry, allowed those permanent settlements to flourish. Food and food culture remained central components of traditional agrarian societies but as fewer people needed to actively take part in food procurement, other economic and cultural activities were able to be pursued and cities grew in density, scale, complexity and prevalence.

Yet the majority of humans continued to reside in rural areas until fairly recently, holding fast to their agricultural roots. In 1900, just 10% of people lived in cities; today, 55% of people live in cities. By 2050, city dwellers are expected to account for 68% of the human population. In developed nations, this disparity has developed even further — in 2016, 71% of Australians lived in major cities, while in 2018, 82% of Americans were city dwellers.

The rapid rate of change in the rural-urban population distribution coincides with increases in agricultural production and efficiency arising out of technological advancements during the industrial revolution and later, the green revolution. Since then, neoliberal policies delegating agricultural research and extension to the private realm while favouring the widespread use of agrochemicals, monocultures and GM crops, have obliterated food sovereignty and displaced small producers. Productivity, meanwhile, has increased on an absolute scale (which is expected to be short-lived), though not on a relative scale.

The result? Food prices have declined in real terms and farm profitability has decreased. In many parts of the world, farmers have been pushed to seek work elsewhere, though it has not necessarily led to higher wages or improved food security. A cultural attitude that farming is an undesirable occupation with little value has ensued, leaving us with a crippling disconnect between producers and consumers, the rural-urban divide.

Paradoxically, while both consumers and producers are at loggerheads and each party feels increasingly misunderstood by the other, they have an interdependent relationship that is crucial to our survival as a species — not just because of the provision of food and fibre but because of the numerous other ecosystem services that agriculture provides.

In Australia, it’s not just that producers and consumers don’t see eye to eye — 83% of Australians feel that agriculture has little or no relevance to their lives and more than half have not interacted with a farmer in the last year. This is despite over 90% of food sold in Australia being domestically produced, while agriculture contributes AU $64 billion to the economy, directly employs 1.6 million people (about 6.5% of Australia’s population), and has been one of the stabilising forces in the economy in recent years. Not to mention the fact that most people eat agricultural produce several times a day.

This disconnect has ramifications beyond cultural attitudes. Farming utilises 37% of the world’s land surface area, making farmers environmental stewards of over a third of all land. However, the decline in terms of trade in the agricultural sector makes it difficult and risky for farmers to adopt new, more sustainable practices and infrastructure. The ability to market agricultural produce and differentiate where more sustainable practices have been implemented is lacking, so the anticipation of increased profitability is not often a motivating factor for farmers. Nor is there a social incentive to act, since consumers place so little value on agriculture, being so dis-engaged from it. And, while there is certainly an innate satisfaction that comes from a job well done, it does not pay the bills.

Hence, agriculture has become one of the biggest contributors to environmental degradation, from climate change and biodiversity loss through to salinity and poor nutrient cycling. On top of that, the over-emphasis on quantity over quality has led to a decrease in food quality, while commodification of traditional food systems has created food inequality and distribution issues.

Moreover, there is an additional price squeeze in agriculture due to the discrepancy between production costs and what consumers are willing to pay for food, primarily felt by producers. The ongoing milk pricing scam in Australian supermarkets is testament to it. This kind of price squeeze has resulted in a widening of the poverty gap in rural areas, even in developed countries.

On the consumer end, the disconnect has consequences as well. Though moving from rural areas into towns and cities can provide greater income security for those who move, the shift from a traditional diet, driven by social influences, has largely negative health effects. For example, as women’s role as income earners has increased, they have become more time poor. The “quick fix”, processed or packaged foods, which are often less nutritious than traditionally prepared foods, become a more attractive option, as does the over-reliance on dietary staples.

These kinds of social changes, coupled with financial pressure, create a “nutrition transition” that often results in nutrient deficiency. Nutrient deficiency affects 2 billion people and is most prevalent amongst the urban poor, though it tends to afflict the rural poor as well. Women and children are the most severely affected by nutrient deficiency, the results of which manifest in two ways.

Chronic food deprivation, or an inadequate dietary energy intake, affected 821 million people in 2017. 7.5% of children under the age of five suffered from wasting, where they display low weight-for-height. Meanwhile, 22% of children under five displayed stunted growth or low height-for-age. Both wasting and stunting been linked to impaired health, educational and economic outcomes later in life. Concurrent conditions often include zinc, vitamin A, iron and iodine deficiencies and collectively cause death, sickness, impaired cognitive development, blindness and developmental problems. They also have measurable impacts on the economy, which only serves to increase the malnutrition burden and deepen poverty cycles.

It also results in what experts now call “hidden hunger”, cravings for high energy foods that are brought about by stress induced by food insecurity. Diets lacking in sufficient protein, quality fats, and nutrients and minerals are conducive to hidden hunger. In the early stages, traditional high carbohydrate foods such as rice, fruit and vegetables, constitute the majority of the diet, as they are cheaper and more readily available. Over time, the body’s cravings for a wider array of macro and micronutrients manifest as cravings for high energy foods. Since processed, nutritionally inferior foods are more affordable than more nutritious options, these become a regular part of the diet, serving only to exacerbate hidden hunger even though overweight and obesity may develop. This has led to a cultural dependence on these foods, and is thought to be the main driving force behind the overweight and obesity epidemic and the associated health issues that arise.

At its core, food is a visceral experience. It contributes something more to our lives than merely energy and nutrition; food production and consumption has formed a part of our social fabric since the dawn of civilisation as we know it. Food systems have shaped our lives even as we have shaped them. Our increasing disconnection from our rural origins represents an increasing disconnection from ourselves, compromising our ability to flourish. Perhaps it’s time to rethink our disconnect with food and bridge that great divide.