Young people must have a central role in the transformation of food systems

Originally published in Food Tank: Link

Op-Ed contributors comprise UN Food Systems Summit Action Track chairs and youth leaders

Youth have the largest stake so need the strongest influence in shaping sustainable, resilient, healthy and equitable food systems

Young people demand a seat at the table and for world leaders to incorporate their priorities in commitments made at the UN Food Systems Summit

Our food systems are failing. The cheapest form of a healthy diet is out of reach for three billion people. In 2020, as many as 811 million people went hungry. Conflict, economic shocks related to the pandemic and extreme weather events exposed and exacerbated already fragile food systems. Those same systems, which rely on stable climate and nature, are a major contributor to the climate crisis, generating as much as 37% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and are the biggest cause of nature loss. If we do not take urgent action, things will only get worse. It is today’s youths and our future generations who stand to suffer the most. But we can make the choice not to place the failings of past generations on their shoulders.

That is why the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) has, for the past 18 months, brought people together from around the world to deliver tangible, transformative change to food systems. Importantly, it is why over 66,000 young people have been part of the process.

The Summit will culminate on Thursday 23rd September. Global leaders and Heads of States will commit to tangible actions and showcase their national priorities and pathways, all for food systems transformation.

This is a significant moment for the development of our future food systems. And the commitments of leaders and decision makers are to translate into impact, they must have accounted for the demands of youth. Ambitions must be aligned at the Summit, setting us on a path to delivering the future that those who will live in it both want and deserve.

We are facing the biggest intergenerational fairness issues: young people are disproportionately impacted by decisions made today, on how we produce, transport and consume food, that will shape our global food systems tomorrow. A lack of action on the climate and nature crises is contributing to increases in malnutrition, hunger and the emergence of infectious diseases. Now is the time for integrated action, across food, health, climate and nature, to pave a better way for the future.

We have more young people in the world now than ever before, accounting for 16% of the world’s population.

Youths must have one of the strongest influences in shaping the sustainable, resilient, healthy and equitable food systems we need for both today and the future.

In a world in which temperatures continue to rise and extreme weather events are ever more common, this generation is on the front line, feeding a growing population against a backdrop of heat extremes, droughts, and flooding, and as a result, growing conflict.

There’s more. Young people aren’t just the consumers of tomorrow, but also the food producers. Food systems are already the largest employer of youth globally. Mobilised and empowered, youth are the generation of agricultural innovators and environmental stewards driving forward a nutritious, sustainable and resilient food system that is better for people, planet and prosperity.

Yet too often youth are only regarded as recipients, and are under-represented or excluded from decisions that impact their future. The leaders of today should listen to the leaders of tomorrow, whether they want to or not.

Ahead of the Summit, youth organisations Act4Food Act4Change, YOUNGO, Food@COP, Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY), and Global Indigenous Youth Caucus (GIYC) are calling for intergenerational food systems transformation, with a focus on agency and empowerment for youth from farm to fork.  Five global NGOs: the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), EAT Foundation, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), CARE International and The Club of Rome are officially supporting this call.

Changing our food systems is an intergenerational challenge that requires an intergenerational approach. We have no choice: we must empower youth to be in the driver’s seat.

Youth are calling for three major changes to food systems.

The first is to ensure young people are involved in the essential overhaul and widespread transformation of global food systems to increase access to safe and nutritious food. Healthy food is a critical factor in improving livelihoods. Supporting youth engagement in increased production of and access to healthy nutritious food is a vital first step.

This starts with eliminating barriers to key resources, including, but not limited to education, access to land and fair wages.

Second, this transformation must focus on improving food system resilience. There is only one way to successfully deliver this: the food, climate and nature agendas must be fully integrated, and food systems transformation has to be prioritised as a means of achieving nature and climate goals.

In addition to generating a huge proportion of greenhouse gas emissions, food systems have caused 80% of deforestation and 70% of biodiversity loss on land, and 50% in freshwater. Nature-positive production practices have to be adopted at scale, both to minimise the negative effects of food systems, and, crucially, to unleash their potential to support thriving biodiversity and healthy ecosystems for a food secure future in a livable climate.

Building resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stresses caused by climate change, disasters, pandemics and conflicts is vital to securing a healthy food system for years to come.

Action to improve food resilience begins with understanding that the right to food is a human right for all. We need to build robust and multi-stakeholder efforts to prepare and respond to political and environmental crises. These must target specific actions, for example supporting producers and communities to embrace diverse, climate-resilient production that provides better protection from financial and environmental crises.

Thirdly, the transformation must drive healthier and more sustainable production and consumption. Poor diets greatly increase the risk of non-communicable diseases, every year accounting for 11 million premature deaths. Enabling all to access and make informed decisions on healthy, sustainable and culturally appropriate food consumption will drive shifts in supply and demand.

All generations must be empowered with access and knowledge to make healthier, climate-positive dietary choices. This includes facilitating this consumption for young people through restrictions on inappropriate marketing of unhealthy products, particularly those targeted at youth and the provision of nutritious and sustainable meals in schools and universities.

The ‘Food is the Future’ event on the 22nd September will bring youth to the centre of the discussion on food systems transformation. The event is jointly organised by youth initiatives Act4Food Act4Change, YOUNGO, Food@COP, Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY), and Global Indigenous Youth Caucus (GIYC) and is supported by CARE, EAT, WWF, GAIN, ICCCAD and The Club of Rome.

All stories