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Youth Engagement in Food Systems – A goal and a means for transformation

Women working in a orchid farm nursery.

“Young people should not need to have the courage to engage in food systems and agriculture. We have to de-risk the investments with financial support mechanisms from the public and the private sector.” said Amanda Wood, Researcher at Stockholm Resilience Center, during the session Promoting Youth in Food Systems – Today and Tomorrow

Young people should not need to have courage. Barriers to meaningful and sustainable youth engagement in agriculture and food systems need to be understood and addressed. These are the aims of the HLPE report titled Promoting Youth Engagement and Employment in Agriculture and Food Systems. It assesses youths’ engagement in food systems, identifies constraints and challenges, and proposes a global youth agenda. The report was discussed during the Committee on World Food Security’s (CFS) 49th Plenary Session (CFS49), which took place virtually between the 11th and 14th of October 2021. 

SIANI has previously engaged with the report by providing feedback based on the discussion at the session Promoting Youth in Food Systems – Today and Tomorrow. This article aims to give an overview of the preliminary framework used in the report, and how the report was discussed during CFS49. 

A framework for promoting youth in food systems

The HLPE develops and presents a preliminary framework on youth engagement in food systems. It informs the analysis of youths’ current engagement and the challenges they face across the four cross-cutting key policy areas: employment, resources, innovation, and knowledge. It also informs HLPE’s policy recommendations. The HLPE identifies four pillars that form the basis of the framework. These are agency, equity, rights, and recognition. According to the HLPE, the transformation to sustainable food systems and the fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) depend upon these four pillars. So does the transition to economies of wellbeing defined by HLPE as: 

“…economic activities, relationships and structures which promote a return to harmonious relationships between people and nature; a fair distribution of resources to address economic inequalities; and healthy and resilient individuals and communities.”

How are the four foundational pillars understood within the framework? 

Agency recognises youth as agents of change, but does not prescribe the kind of change youth can catalyse. Instead, the concept neutrally highlights the ability of youth to have some control over the direction of their own life and society at large. However, given that youth are situated in intersecting power relations that constrain their ability to act, the agency of youth is understood to be bounded by context-specific barriers. 

Equity reflects that youth are growing up in a world with persisting and increasing inequalities. The inequalities youth face are not limited to their socially defined status as “youths”, but often depend on intersecting factors, such as class, gender, and race. The inclusion of equity entails a recognition of the necessity to address these inequalities for food systems to become sustainable, for the SDGs to be achieved and for the transition to economies of well-being.   

Rights incorporate the general “triangle of rights” – protection, non-discrimination, and participation – as applied in various UN conventions, declarations, and specific rights, such as the right to adequate food. The rights pillar entails a recognition of youths as right-holders with a legitimate claim to all the rights enshrined in various international conventions and declarations, including – in the case of children under 18 – the rights listed in the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). It further entails a recognition of the duty of the State to respond to the right-claims of youths. 

Recognition is necessary for the other pillars to have practical meaning for youths. It means that youths are considered full partners in social interactions and able to participate on par with others through the exercise of agency, the pursuit of equity and the realisation of rights.

Photo: HLPE. 2021. Promoting youth engagement and employment in agriculture and food systems. Page 11. 

So, the foundational pillars of agency, equity, rights, and recognition construct the base of a framework that can support positive change. As shown in the illustration above, they are necessary to improve youths’ access and experiences with employment, resources, innovation, and knowledge. Youth’s access and experiences within these areas are, in turn, mediated by dynamic structures and processes that, for instance, “structure youths’ capacity to influence policy, to claim rights and to address rights violations”. These dynamic structures are, according to HLPE, “makers or breakers” for youths. They affect their ability and their role in promoting economies of well-being. However, by building from a foundation of agency, equity, rights, and recognition, young people’s engagement in sustainable food systems can, according to HLPE, become a reality, “both [as] a goal to be met in and of itself and as a means to realizing sustainable development”.    

CFS49 on Youth Engagement in Food Systems 

During CFS49, the HLPE presented the report, and it was discussed by, among others, the Member States, the Private Sector Mechanism (PSM) and Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM). The CFS Chair Tiensin explained that the report is intended to inform a CFS policy process and the development of policy recommendations on “engaging, recruiting and retaining youth in agriculture and food systems”. These will be presented at CFS50 in October 2022.

While the reception of the report was largely positive, the discussion brought to the fore areas of contention and disagreement between actors. They could, in line with the report, agree on the need to place youth at the centre of a policy convergence process, the need to recognise the diversity of youth and the necessity for context-specific policy initiatives as well as the need to ensure equitable access to resources essential for youth engagement in food systems. However, disagreements surfaced around issues related to diversity and rights. While several youth representatives stressed the importance of referring to the report’s four foundational pillars, certain Member States, including the USA, preferred referring to the SDGs. 

It remains to be seen how these disagreements will be navigated and/or resolved and how the report will inform the upcoming policy recommendations on youth engagement and employment. Ultimately, the role of the report in promoting youth engagement in food systems will be determined by the political process initiated at CFS49, with the next milestone being CFS50 in 2022. From this moment on, it will be possible to begin to assess how the report is being adhered to.     

In Closing

While the issues and obstacles to meaningful engagement and employment in food systems analysed and discussed in the report also impact social groups other than youth, young people’s experience of these are particular to their social position. The specific barriers and constraints youths face need to be acknowledged and addressed in policy. However, policy instruments also need to be based on intersectional and context-specific solutions since being a youth is a very different experience depending on factors such as class, gender, and location. 

SIANI hopes that the CFS will show real ambition in its policy recommendations to create a better world for future generations. It is trendy to discuss youth now, but it is vital to transform the current momentum for youth into political action. Quoting the CSM Youth Working Group:

“Youth are political subjects and have the right, capacity, and agency to build spaces of solidarity, inclusion, and dignity” co-creating “life-affirming worlds and futures by building strong connections to land, water, seeds, plants, and all living beings”.

Written by Josefine Jacobsson, intern at SIANI.

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