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Youth and the transformation of food systems

Photo: Felicia Buitenwerf / Unsplash

As part of the process leading up to the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), an online Youth Consultation was organised in order to gather young voices and perspectives. It was the first time that a space was created for youth to discuss and provide inputs on a high-level event of that kind. Over the course of three weeks, youth were able to provide ideas, propose solutions, define concrete actions and interact with peers around themes emanating from the five action tracks guiding the summit. The outcomes of the consultation were presented at the Pre-Summit of the UNFSS , on 26-28 July, 2021.This article compiles the outcomes of the online consultation process centred around the Summit’s five Action Tracks and of the Pre-Summit discussions relating to Youth in food systems.

Better nutrition for all

A recent report by the FAO is baffling: around 30% of the world population faced difficulties accessing healthy food in 2020, a third of them being undernourished. The need to increase healthy food availability is more important than ever. This first discussion theme proposed actions related to nutrition and food safety to end hunger and malnutrition. In the discussion, youth raised the importance of including smallholder and local farmers as well Indigenous peoples in the propositions, especially in making sure that food is accessible and affordable for all, also in remote and lower-income areas, as well as for marginalised groups.

In order to ensure sustainable farming in regard to nutrition, the importance of diversity along the whole food chain was raised, along with organic farming without the use of pesticides as well as multi-cropping. Education was also at the centre of the online consultation: not only for farmers and their farming practices, but also for consumers and their ability to, for example, understand food labelling when choosing nutritious food. Many participants also raised the value of new technology to increase farm sustainability and demanded investments in innovations such as GPS, blockchain and renewable energies.

Sustainable consumption

Whereas many people suffer from undernourishment, a rising number of people are overweight. 13% of the world population was obese in 2016. At the same time, the environment is degrading, both human and natural resources are being exploited – around 30% of all food produced worldwide is wasted, not fulfilling its principal aim: feeding the world population. Human activities impact both on human and planet health, not the least when it comes to food systems, whose many elements all interact with the planetary boundaries. The second thematic area thus revolved around food consumption patterns, both in terms of healthy, affordable options, and food waste reduction to promote a circular economy.

Including more plant-based foods into diets were highlighted as crucial for sustainable consumption. However, others stressed that diets are strongly linked to cultural, economic, and social factors. “Unhealthy food” may thus be defined differently across communities, and solutions must be locally adapted and culturally sensitive. At the same time, supermarkets are to revise their beauty standards to avoid food waste.

Related to this, communication to consumers is key, along with transparency along the whole food chain. Science plays a crucial role here, responsible for giving science-based facts, so communication around food can be linked both to environmental and human health. Advocacy through social media, influencers and megastars, was highlighted in this context, for consumers to end up “voting with their wallet”, as Laurence Jeangros, Bites of Transfoodmation, highlighted.

Nature positive production

Food systems are responsible for around 30% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. This third topic aims at finding solutions for optimising natural resource use in food production, both for planetary and human health. The question of managing potential trade-offs and conflicts in food production practices was raised by many youths. Additionally, some noticed the absent notions of food sovereignty in the propositions and raised the critical question of land justice and ownership. In order to achieve just transitions, workers and communities must be placed at the centre of policy and action plans.

In achieving a nature positive food production, it is also important to value locally produced food, especially in relation to food’s nutritional value. Combining new and ancient knowledge must be considered as part of the solution for nature-positive food production, and securing access to land to underrepresented groups an asset for truly inclusive food systems.

Food systems for decent employment and better lives for all

Agriculture and practices related to food systems provide employment and/or livelihood for a vast majority of people worldwide. Still, most youth dream of a white-collar job. The fourth thematic area focused on solutions to ameliorate livelihoods through food system transformation, that would provide decent employment for all, support entrepreneurship and address inequitable access to resources. In this discussion, youth highlighted that all groups in society must be included in efforts supporting equal employment and labour rights in the food sector.

The agricultural sector should become attractive to the young generation. A participant highlighted the need for cross-sectoral professional careers. This could mean enabling people to split their work time between their “regular” employment and farming practices such as gardening, animal breeding, beekeeping, etc. This way, more innovative youth would realise the potential food systems hold, both for their private life and for their peers and the environment.

We need to catch them while they’re young” commented Laurence Omuhaka, Ministry of Agriculture, Kenya, indicating that Youth are much more eager to adopt new technologies and try out different techniques than their elders. He added that women should not be left apart from these measures.

Resilient food systems

Food systems might be the employment sector most subject to shocks of all kinds; weather events, market crashes, national regulations, import/export taxes, political changes can all have consequent impacts on harvests, marketing opportunities and access to land for example. Universal access to food is what the last thematic area revolved around, where food is be perceived as a public good, guaranteed to reach everyone in adequate quantities.

A critical aspect to consider in the making of resilient food systems is long term conservation of food diversity. Youth suggested establishing gene banks as well as strengthening farmers’ conservation practices on the field to stabilise seed and food biodiversity. The use of new technology may be valuable in this regard. Concrete actions included for instance constructing adaptative solutions with regards to climate change and involving youth in discussions on how to construct our future food systems. This work should start already as part of education.

The way forward

Besides and maybe above personal and collective action, governments have a large role to play for a transformation of food systems. To support youth in their endeavours, consultation participants urged governments to put young people in decision-making positions, to encourage cross-sectoral projects and to provide funding for youth venturing into agri-food business. Regulating the private sector, supporting youth leadership, encouraging equitable business models, improving social security schemes are just a few further examples of action governments must take.

Throughout the discussions revolving around the five thematic areas, the keywords Indigenous peoples and knowledge were raised, underlining the importance of acknowledging different stakeholders when it comes to food systems. Youth stressed the prioritisation of indigenous and biocentric ecological restoration. Emergency preparedness and response plans must also respect Indigenous communities’ traditional governance and decision-making processes. Governments are urged to recognise customary laws of Indigenous peoples over territories and ancestral land ties.

Youth already know it all” (Hailemariam Desalegn, former Prime Minister, Ethiopia) – this phrase entails it all, youth must be included in decision-making processes and be considered as real rightsholders. An important aspect noted by a few consultations and Pre-Summit participants is the danger of grouping people under umbrella terms such as Youth or marginalised groups for instance. Acknowledgement of different groups is key to map specific risk mechanisms and finding locally adapted and inclusive solutions. Still, all these groups share a key common feature: their underrepresentation along with their will to change the course, and to build forward, better. The engagement from youth is big, and it is up to all actors across food systems to make sure that the transformation is inclusive and happening on the ground, for the benefit of all.

Reporting by Alice Castensson, Associate at SIANI SweDev, and Magdalena Knobel, MSc. Sustainable Food Systems and Communications Consultant at SIANI.