By: Dr. Acga Cheng
By 2050, urban areas are projected to house two-thirds of a 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, with problems such as overnutrition, malnutrition, and overcrowding.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has also demonstrated how vulnerable cities are to complex and unexpected global risks and crises. Many cities across the world have become the epicentres of the pandemic, disrupting food supply chains due to rising food costs and/or food shortages caused by export restrictions from neighbouring countries.
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 and more greenhouse gases are 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 urban food systems by growing more diverse crop types, which can help improve crop 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 involves converting nitrogen from the air into different chemical forms that help plants to grow and replenish the soil. Legumes are often considered to be affordable plant-based sources of dietary proteins. In recent years, some underutilised legumes have been promoted as future proteins or meat alternatives, such as winged bean (locally known as kacang botol or kacang botor). Once known as the ‘poor man’s crops’, 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 to meat, our current interdisciplinary project (The Hot-City Beans Project) aims to create innovative solutions for farming legumes in tropical cities in the face of climate change, which include developing a theoretical model for urban farming using the thermodynamics of open systems with the aid of artificial intelligence tools, 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, including 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 Sir David Attenborough, a world-renowned natural historian.
The author is a senior lecturer at the Institute of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, Universiti Malaya. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org