Transforming food systems in the face of climate change: Encouraging meaningful youth participation

The big picture

Food systems today are dealing with the unprecedented challenge of feeding an increasingly growing and urbanized population and are currently falling short in meeting nutritional requirements and ensuring long-term health for almost half of people worldwide. Climate change and global warming are already having considerable effects on the efficiency of food production as well as on its quality globally. Food systems are highly sensitive to environmental and climatic factors, and even single changes can affect them on a broad scale. A year with an anomalous rainfall regime, sudden temperature changes, or extreme weather events (such as a hurricane or a flash flood) can severely impact the performance of agricultural and livestock activities.

Achieving food security in the face of accelerating food demand, increasing population, competition for depleting resources, and the failing ability of the environment to buffer increasing anthropogenic impacts is now widely seen as the foremost challenge of humanity. Engaging youth in agriculture and other food systems is increasingly being recognized as a critical component and a key priority area in building a sustainable environment and creating a promising future. Youth play a potential role as changemakers and sustainable solutioners in protecting the environment, identifying and implementing innovative solutions, and creating adaptive and/or transformative food systems to ensure food security.

From a development perspective, today's youth generation is on the frontline and will have to cope with the effects of environmental and climate change, which are likely to accelerate and intensify during their lifetimes and those of their children. The unfolding life histories of this generation and their offspring will both track and strongly influence the evolution of economic, social, and political development over the coming decades. Their lives will reflect humanity's success or failure in moving toward more ecologically sustainable and socially equitable development.

While the world population is expected to reach ten billion by 2050, a projected increase in food demand by 50% compared to 2013 is forecasted, which is also driven by a dietary transition in especially low and middle-income countries (FAO, 2017). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO, 2019) report on the global state of food security, nearly two billion people experience severe food insecurity and over 820 million people go hungry, threatening the achievability of the “zero hunger” SDG by 2030 while more than one billion people are overweight at the same time (WHO, 2018). The goal aims to “ensure access by all people across the United Nations member countries, to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food all year round” (SDG Target 2.1) and to “eradicate all forms of malnutrition” (SDG Target 2.2).

Food systems, climate change and sustainability: A question mark

Unfortunately, the current and projected warming of the earth unequivocally has mankind playing a decisive role as both perpetrators and victims. Today, the agro-food sector alone accounts for some 80% of the world's freshwater use, 30% of world energy demand, and more than 12% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, including indirect emissions such as those from deforestation (IPCC, 2014). In addition, according to FAO reports, croplands and pastures occupy about 38% of Earth’s terrestrial surface, the largest use of land on the planet. With global food production expected to increase by 70% by 2050 and projected dietary changes towards more meat consumption, the sector is facing unprecedented resource pressures and strong perturbations to climate systems. This is an unprecedented velocity of transformation experienced by planet Earth and humanity.

Additionally, food systems must be sustainable in terms of prevention, recycling, and upcycling of waste and losses from the agricultural and livestock sector. Supply chains are largely inefficient with regard to food loss and waste which globally are equivalent to some 40% of total food production. Unless food systems are radically transformed, additional food demands will drive a future increase of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, deficits in land and water use, and conflicts, social unrest, and migration.

Potential risks and consequences imposed by climate change on food systems including agriculture, livestock, and the fisheries sector are perceptible with regard to social, cultural, and economical norms as well as from production to consumption. Climate change has implications for the processing, storage, transport, retailing, and consumption of most food products. Food systems are structured and driven by relations of capital and trade, networks of social and legal contracts, and flows of knowledge, nutrients, commodities, and money across short and long distances. Hence, it is vital to address their transition under a changing climate to ensure food security and planetary health for a longer period.

Engaging youth sustainable food systems: Analyzing entry points

About 85% of young people live in developing countries (UNDESA, 2018) where agriculture and fisheries are considered to be key economical and cultural sectors. Therefore, it is vitally important to include youth in various phases of planning, strategizing, implementing, and decision-making related to creating a safe, secure, and sustainable food system under the climate crisis. The interests and needs of the young generation are important, not only because they are many but because they will need and are indeed entitled to expect decent work and livelihoods as well as long and healthy lives. To achieve this objective for so many people will be challenging in an era of ecological stress.

Given the fact that access to clean water, a healthy diet, and a safe environment are fundamental human rights, youth as the future leaders of this planet deserve to be a part of the ventures ensuring sustainable food systems. The global community depends on the agricultural sector, a major contributor to the potential transgression of several planetary boundaries, to advance its commitment to sustainable practices. In turn, the global community needs to acknowledge that they have the greatest stake in ensuring food security and natural resource availability. 

The potential capacity of agriculture and the agri-food sector more broadly to provide jobs and decent work for young people is a matter of active debate among policymakers and academics. Youth as the future working force and dynamic cohort can play a crucial role with regard to creating awareness, climate-resilient innovations, policy, national adaptation planning, and advocacy measures. Higher educational attainments, coupled with childhood and young adulthood experience, characterized by (easier) access to digital skills development, can grant young people an edge in devising, designing, and launching their climate mitigation solutions. Greater benefits can be reaped by including them in the high-level agenda particularly with their interest in environmental awareness, sustainability, and conservation, their digital and entrepreneurial skills, the capacity of social networking, and their ability to explore niche markets and create innovative business models. 

It becomes critical to support this contribution by addressing the obstacles that hold youth-led solutions back in areas including access to funding and financial services, access to mentoring opportunities and business development services, regulatory barriers, and access to information. Capacity development, proper training, and adequate knowledge tools, and economical and political support should be provided to youth stakeholders in order to accomplish their task of redefining the future of food systems while addressing diversity and inclusion at the same time. In addition to this, political, institutional, and government leaders should cope with novel ideas so that youth efforts can be encouraged further and by bringing their new ideas into action in order to revitalize enthusiasm for innovation. 

At present, the level of youth civic participation is limited in most countries. Only about 6% of the world’s parliamentarians are estimated to be under 35 (UNDP, 2014), and only around 2% are under 30 (SDSN Youth, 2018). It is important to acknowledge youth contributions and thereby meaningfully encourage others to get involved in climate action. Youth should be permitted and supported to be part of green technologies, value, and supply chains, agribusinesses, and innovative green industries. Socially, older generations should be open to youth participation not only by providing a seat at the table but also by cooperatively working together for better outcomes. 

Only by clearly understanding the obstacles which discourage young people from participating in agriculture, and creating potential opportunities to overcome them, can policy-makers leverage youth skills and solutions to promote and achieve sustainable transformation in food systems.

A call for action: Meaningful youth participation

“Young people are on the frontlines of the struggle to build a better future for all”

In addressing the issues related to climate change, and unsustainable food systems, the potential contribution of young people is often associated with the concepts of creativity, enthusiasm, and advocacy. While the importance of youth voices and inclusion is well recognized the gravity of contribution do address additional aspects including their interest in environmental conservation and/or protection, digital and entrepreneurial skills, and their ability to explore niche markets and proposing/implementing innovative climate solutions and business models. The youth-led solutions can be of varying aspects including supply chain, advocacy, non-profit, education and research. On the other hand, by understanding the limitations to youth participation other party stakeholders should pave ways to overcome such via efforts such as capacity development and training, provision of financial support and inclusion in national level decision making and policy frameworks and fostering youth-led innovation. Additionally these recommendations should fundamentally align with the principles of human rights, equity, gender equality and inclusivity. 

“Transforming Food Systems: Youth Innovation for Human and Planetary Health” is the theme of International Youth Day 2021. This particularly highlights that the success of global efforts toward food system transformation will not be successfully achieved without meaningful participation of young people. This brings the energy and dynamics of youth around the world together into planning, decision-making, and implementing innovative solutions to ensure food security and healthy dietary options for the rest of the world. While the participation of youth in climate action and resilient food systems is recognized on a global agenda precisely because the progress of climate change violates the human rights of young people who are the most vulnerable in every country, timely actions are needed to make their voices heard.

The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development produced at the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit already states that “the right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.” Similarly, the United Nations Agenda 21 strongly states that broad public participation is a prerequisite to achieve sustainable development and is expected to be driven by nine stakeholder groups including youth. The 2015 Paris Agreement also recognizes the importance of ambitious and progressive action and collaborative approaches to tackle climate change, including recognition of the right to health, development, gender equality, the empowerment of women, intergenerational equity, and the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, people with disabilities, people in vulnerable situations, and children. This gives a mandate to youth to play an integral part in climate action and redefine the future of food systems to make sure everyone on the planet is entitled to have sufficient, healthy, and nutritious food.

Recognition of youth voices is crucial in normative, legislative and institutional frameworks of national, regional, local, government and state actors, civil society organizations and institutions, and their organized youth articulations. Youth engagement in sustainable food systems is thus simultaneously a goal to be realized and a means for the radical transformation of food systems, the achievement of SDGs and economies of well-being. In order to be sustainable, the development of food systems needs to generate positive value along three dimensions: economic, social, and environmental aspects. 

Simply producing a larger volume of food and/or producing healthier food will not ensure human wellbeing at this moment. Other crucial challenges (such as poverty reduction, social inclusion, increased equity, education, and health care; biodiversity conservation, sustainable energy, water security; and climate change adaptation and mitigation) must also be addressed, on a wider scale. Such a broad and global commitment involving powerful young minds would assure a path for a just, resilient, and sustainable food system transformation. 


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