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A rural-urban continuum lens to shaping affordable healthy diets

Photo by Aravindan Ganesan from Flickr

We have no option but to redouble our efforts to transform agrifood systems and leverage them towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG 2) targets.” – FAO.

The 2023 edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report updates on the trajectory to end hunger (SDG Target 2.1) and malnutrition in all its forms (SDG Target 2.2) in the wake of a global pandemic and an ongoing war in Ukraine. Several major factors are jeopardising the fulfilment of SDG 2 targets including conflicts that are becoming more intense, economic slowdowns and downturns, extreme weather events, unaffordable nutritious foods and growing inequality. To successfully address these challenges and opportunities, it is important to consider megatrends such as urbanisation. Thus, this report links urbanisation and the affordability of healthy diets and determines the resulting implications of food security and nutrition while providing recommendations towards healthy diets.

This is a timely topic as approximately 56% of people live in cities, and this trend is projected to reach around 70% in 2050. This phenomenon influences the agrifood systems requiring a rural-urban continuum lens to comprehend it. Recent evidence demonstrates that food purchases and consumption are evolving and affecting people’s food security and nutrition depending on their living place across the rural-urban continuum.

How are we moving forward in the achievement of SDG 2 targets? What are the political mechanisms to ensure healthy diets in view of urbanisation?

Progress towards SDG 2 targets

While SDG Target 2.1 aims to eradicate hunger, 2022 global hunger remains at an ascending peak compared to pre-pandemic levels. While there has been a decrease in the number of people facing hunger between 2021 and 2022, there are still 122 million more people suffering from hunger than before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ukraine war is undermining progress since magnifying the increase in food and energy prices. Moreover, estimations project a daunting situation because it is foreseen that, in 2030, 600 million people will still be confronted with hunger.

Unfortunately, hunger is not the only preoccupying issue as in 2022, 2.4 billion people, especially women and people living in rural areas lacked access to nutritious, safe and sufficient food all year round. Moreover, affordability remains a significant issue due to the persisting impact of the pandemic on people’s disposable income and the rising cost of a healthy diet coupled with overall inflation. Furthermore, millions of children are still struck by stunting, wasting and overweight.

To tackle hunger and malnutrition, the megatrends that cause inadequate and unsafe food must be considered.

Repercussions of urbanisation in agrifood systems across the rural-urban continuum

As urbanisation progresses, the degree of connectivity between rural and urban areas rises. This impacts the availability of affordable healthy diets and the livelihoods of urban and rural primary producers, processors and traders.

Food demand in urban areas evolves with the amount of food produced, processed and distributed in the agrifood systems. Urbanisation can significantly impact agrifood systems by altering consumer behaviour and diets. This can have positive and negative effects on food security and nutrition.

Urbanisation generates changes in midstream and downstream food supply, creating significant off-farm employment opportunities and, in turn, steady and liveable incomes. Better connectivity between urban and rural areas boosts access to agricultural inputs and services, improving productivity and incomes.

The FAO has observed a spatial divide between urban and rural areas, with rural areas consuming more market-purchased food. Urbanisation leads to a greater demand for convenience, pre-prepared and fast foods due to lifestyle changes, employment profiles and increasing commuting times. Urban expansion contributes to land-use changes. In some countries, farmers reap financial benefits for selling their lands, while in other countries, the loss of land results in loss of livelihoods and potential issues around land rights.

While urbanisation is often linked with the diversification of diets due to increased connectivity between rural and urban areas, the availability of fruits and vegetables is insufficient to satisfy the daily requirements. The growth of supermarkets and hypermarkets can provide better access to nutritious food but also lead to an increase in energy-dense and highly processed food.

Lastly, despite healthy food may be cheaper in peri-urban and rural areas, limited financial resources can still lead to unhealthy choices. Nevertheless, the report shows that there is a global increase in the consumption of more expensive food items.

These links and interactions across the rural-urban continuum create numerous entry points for policy and programmes to foster agrifood systems transformation towards affordable healthy diets.

Political mechanisms towards healthy diets

Political initiatives can be very relevant to galvanise healthy diets across the rural-urban continuum.

Supports can target the food environment in fostering the spread of healthier food outlets and encourage shops to store and sell greater amounts of fresh and minimally processed foods.

Investments in infrastructures, public goods and enhanced capacities can engender closer linkages in agrifood systems with opportunities for win-win solutions between greater economic development and access to affordable healthy diets. Investments linking farms and SMEs are also fundamental, especially in small lower-middle-income countries.

Technologies and innovations for healthier food environments, availability, supply, and affordability of nutritious foods can be a critical catalyst and be seised through public investment in research and development. A relevant example is food packaging innovations (e.g. Apeel) as it presents multiple advantages, such as, among others, the safety, the longevity of food products, or the reduction of food loss and waste. Vertical farming is another solution that can be leveraged. Behavioural science through evidenced-based approaches is also prominent.

To effectively coordinate investments beyond sectors and administrative boundaries, it is vital to have adequate governance mechanisms and institutions in place. Subnational governments can play a crucial role in designing and implementing policies different from the typical top-down approach. Approaches should be tailored to the local, regional and national context through the engagement of pertinent agrifood systems stakeholders at all levels.


  • Off-track to achieve SDG 2 targets
  • Urbanisation is a growing megatrend shaping agrifood systems, thus, it is part of the solution to meet SDG 2 targets
  • Today, a rural-urban continuum lens is key to understanding the functioning of value chains
  • Systemic changes with policies, investments and legislation require working outside of silos

Written by David Mingasson, SIANI reporter