Urbanisation, rural-urban transformations and food systems

September 2014 - March 2017

Urbanisation drives profound transformations in rural areas and in food systems, presenting both challenges and opportunities for poverty reduction, rural development and food security. Policies at the local, national, regional and global scales are of critical importance in shaping rural-urban linkages and the political economy of food systems.   

Informal food vendors in Mathare, Nairobi. Understanding food consumption and how food systems work is essential to support food security (Photo: Cecilia Tacoli/IIED)

With much of the debate on global food security and rural development framed in terms of inadequate agricultural production, little attention is paid to how the diversity of processes of urbanisation – reflected in food consumption and food systems that include processing, transport, markets and all related activities – generate different pathways of transformation in rural, peri-urban and urban areas. 

Understanding and documenting these transformations, and how they affect low-income groups in all locations, is central to formulating and implementing appropriate policies that support the food security and livelihoods of low-income groups while fostering sustainable rural-urban transitions. 

This project addressed a number of interrelated questions:

  • How does urbanisation affect food consumption patterns and, as a result, agricultural production, processing and handling systems at the local, national and regional levels?
  • Who are the emerging key players in these evolving food systems, and what are the impacts of these transformations for lower-income groups (small-scale producers and family farmers, landless and land-poor rural net food buyers, informal sector traders, low-income urban consumers…)?
  • How do evolutions in rural economies interact with increases in non-farm employment, mobility and migration? 
  • What is the role of small and intermediate urban centres in linking producers to wider (urban national, regional and global) markets, and in providing local opportunities for income diversification?
  • What is the impact of agricultural and trade policies on both urban and rural food consumption and local agricultural production? And what are their often unintended consequences (for example, an increase in net food buyers, especially among lower-income rural groups)?
  • What policy approaches, and at what scale, are needed to ensure that in the process of urbanisation, and in the context of climate change, equity be ensured for both rural and urban people and areas?  

What IIED did

IIED convened and supported a global network of researchers and practitioners, including urban civil society organisations and farmers' organisations, through a number of exchange/learning workshops and case studies in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and China. These reflected on the nature and diversity in both urban systems/urbanisation processes, and the nature of rural-urban linkages.

Network members engaged in debates on food security at the global level through collaboration with international agencies such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), UN Habitat, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

At regional level IIED did this through workshops in London (briefing/report), Dakar, Hanoi (briefing/report), and Nairobi (briefing/report) with local government officials, civil society organisations and regional research institutions.


Rural-urban transformations and food security in India: the challenges and opportunities of peri-urbanisation, Fiona Marshall, Pritpal Randhawa (2017) IIED Working paper

Tackling poverty and food security: lessons from India's peri-urban frontier, Fiona Marshall, Pritpal Randhawa (2017), IIED Briefing paper

Food remittances: rural-urban linkages and food security in Africa, Jonathan Crush and Mary Caesar (2017), IIED Working Paper

Rural livelihood transformations and local development in Cameroon, Ghana and Tanzania, Griet Steel and Paul van Lindert (2017), IIED Working Paper

Mobility and connectivity: driving rural livelihood transformations in Africa, Griet Steel and Paul van Lindert (2017), IIED Briefing paper

Why small towns matter: urbanisation, rural transformations and food security, Cecilia Tacoli and Jytte Agergaard (2017), IIED Briefing paper

Urbanisation, rural transformations and food systems: the role of small towns, Cecilia Tacoli, Jytte Agergaard (2017), Working paper

Why food remittances matter: rural-urban linkages and food security in Africa, Jonathan Crush, Mary Caesar (2017), IIED Briefing paper

Food consumption, urbanisation and rural transformation: the trade dimensions, Bill Vorley and Frederic Lancon (2016), IIED Working paper

Trade winds: is free trade in food bad news for rural areas during rapid urbanisation? Bill Vorley and Frederic Lancon (2016), IIED Briefing paper

Informal food systems and food security in rural and urban East Africa, Cecilia Tacoli (2016), IIED Briefing paper

Urbanisation, changing tastes and rural transformation in West Africa, Frédéric Lançon, Idrissa Wade (2016), IIED Briefing paper 

Urbanisation, rural transformations and food security: the view from China, Jennifer Holdaway (2015), IIED Working paper

A recipe for trade-offs: the evolving landscape of food security in China, Jennifer Holdaway (2015), IIED Briefing paper

Urbanisation and rural development in Vietnam's Mekong Delta: revisiting livelihood transformations in three fruit-growing settlements, 2006-2015, Hoang Xuan Thanh, Dinh Thi Thu Phuong, Dang Thi Thanh Hoa, Le Dinh Lap (2015), IIED Working paper

Fruitful change: rural-urban transformation in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, Hoang Xuan Thanh, Dinh Thi Thu Phuong, Dang Thi Thanh Hoa, Le Dinh Lap (2015), IIED Briefing paper

Creating a new menu for food security policy, Cecilia Tacoli (2015), IIED Briefing paper 

Reframing the debate on urbanisation, rural transformation and food security, Cecilia Tacoli and Bill Vorley (2015), IIED Briefing paper

Food consumption, urbanisation and rural transformations in Southeast Asia, Bill Vorley (2016), IIED Briefing paper