Sign of progress?: When cities feed whole villages

Published: March 2, 2013
Pakistan’s rapid urbanisation comes at cost of agriculture production. DESIGN: FAIZAN DAWOOD

Pakistan’s rapid urbanisation comes at cost of agriculture production. DESIGN: FAIZAN DAWOOD


In a cramped two bedroom house in Dalmia, Karachi, Asadullah Sheikh lives with his 5 children, mother and wife. This is his sixth year in Karachi. Previously, Shaikh was a smallholder farmer and owned 11 acres of land in Sajawal.

The artificial price hike of agricultural lands between 2005 and 2007 tempted Shaikh – like many other farmers- to move to the city. He sold his land, got enough money to buy a motor cycle, paid his debts, set up a small kiryana store and made Karachi his home. “My 11 acres are lying uncultivated,” he says with a tinge of remorse. Sheikh is one of those who form Pakistan’s growing urban population, making Pakistan a country with a very rapid urbanisation rate.

A 2008 report by UN Population Fund reported that the share of the urban population in Pakistan almost doubled from 17.4 per cent in 1951 to 32.5 per cent in 1998.

More than 60% of the population of urban Sindh lives in Karachi, which according to a “City Mayors 2011 survey” has become one of the largest cities in the world with a population of 15.5 million, with other estimates claiming it may be 18 million.

Karachi is just a case in point. Eight key cities in Pakistan are caving under the burden of high-density concentration of population. At the same time, it is becoming tougher for Pakistan’s farmers to continue to live in rural areas and survive on agriculture. According to Dr Vaqar Ahmed of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, a lot has to do with untargeted government subsidies for products consumed in urban areas such as wheat, sugarcane and rice. “What a farmer produces fetches a low price. But what a worker in an urban area produces fetches better returns. Moving to cities is an attractive option. The urban sprawl is very market driven.”

While city-dwellers complain about how cities are becoming crowded, the reasons for this urbanisation are hardly understood. Tariq Bucha, President of Pakistan Farmer’s Association, while talking to The Express Tribune, says that 85 to 87% farmers of Pakistan live below the subsistence level, which means they own less than 12 and a half acres. “Inheritance laws are an important factor here. Every time a person dies, his lands are divided into smaller shares among his children. Small pieces of land are economically unviable. In an absence of a marketing infrastructure and access for our farmers, the most attractive option for them is to sell the 3 to 4 acres they have, and move,” said Bucha.

In the 36th Governing Council of the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), held in Rome in February, agency President Kanayo Nwanze reminded partners that a boom in agriculture can prompt twice more growth in an economy.

“The emergence of higher and more volatile food prices, combined with dramatic droughts, floods, and famines, have concentrated world attention on the question of how to feed a global population that is over 7 billion and growing. Today, agriculture is centre stage,” Nwanze said.

Urban food choices and migration – the missing link

In 2008, the world’s urban population exceeded its rural population for the first time. UN projections suggest that the world’s urban population will grow by more than a billion people between 2010 and 2025, while the rural population will hardly grow at. According to the research paper “Urbanisation and its implications for food and farming” (David Satterthwaite, Gordon McGranahan and Cecilia Tacoli), it is likely that the proportion of the global population not producing food will continue to grow, as will the number of middle and upper income consumers whose dietary choices are more energy- and greenhouse gas emission-intensive (and often more land-intensive) and where such changes in demand also bring major changes in agriculture and in the supply chain.

While urbanisation is seen as a sign of progress, this research says that with urbanization, there will be rising demands for meat, dairy products, vegetable oils and ‘luxury’ foods, and this implies more energy-intensive production and, for many nations, more imports. Also, dietary shifts towards more processed and pre-prepared foods, in part in response to long working hours and, for a proportion of the urban population, with reduced physical activity, affects the agricultural supply chain.

“This trans-shifting has effects on demand of crops. Who eats jawaar (millet) and baajra (sorghum) now? We are moving away from organic food to synthetics,” says Bajwa, commenting on how city dwellers’ food choices indirectly result in mass exodus from villages to cities.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 2nd, 2013.

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Reader Comments (3)

  • Mar 2, 2013 - 2:50PM

    Good story. Crisis ahead?


  • Fly on the wall
    Mar 2, 2013 - 4:12PM

    Incentives for farmers to stay on the land could be made. It would have to be up to the city dwellers, who are also consumers, to change their dietry habits and concentrate on purchasing farm products, ie making it easier for the farmers to sell their produce to the nearest urban population, and pay them a fair price. A housewife will want cheaper fresh produce while willing pay over the odds for ‘luxery’ items or processed foods which are extremely energy intensive. To create a demand for fresh produce while ‘praising the farmers’ efforts’ could give them some encouragement. The drive towards large scale, agro industries, as government policy, has even pushed the farmers out of the business, as these farms take over, using energy intensive crops, excessive use of fertilizers, water and land etc and mono culture methods that lead to soil degradation and eventual desertification. Neither the population nor the wildlife benefit from this. Retail outlets tend to control the supply chain can and do exact demands from farmers, which can result in lower prices for them as well as much of the produce being thrown away due to cosmetic factors. Excessive packaging, which is energy intensive also creates pollution. Assistance could be given to small scale farmers who have problems with storage and distribution. Changes in the consumption patterns of the urban population has become a matter of priority and a drive towards eating fresh raw foods should be taken into account in line with population explosion that Pakistan has and food demand.


  • Fly on the wall
    Mar 2, 2013 - 4:38PM

    A housewife wants cheaper fresh produce while willing to pay over the odds for ‘luxery’ and processed items is enough for any small scale farmer to pack up farming and move to urban areas. The hard work they put in are just not appreciated enough. The retail outlets that control the supply chain can and do make demands on the farmers, pay them lower prices for their produce and throwing out much of it due to cosmetic factors which they sell at a massive profit. Excessive packaging is energy intensive and highly polluting.
    The cost is passed on the consumers. Government policy supports large scale agro industries. These are also highly energy intensive, use enormous amounts of water, fertilizers, large tracts of land and mono cultural methods which can lead to soil degradation and eventual desertification. They drive out the small scale farmers. The dietry habits of the urban population may have to do with lifestyle choices, and a bid to catch up with whatever they see or hear around them, however unhealthy it may seem. The change in patterns of consumption is a priority, in accordance with population explosion and stress they put on the land itself. Raw foods has to be taken into account. They are also in denial when it comes facing what the future may hold for farming or other matters. Fertilizers, pesticides, land grabbing and other activities hurt the wildlife population which is in serious decline.


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