Young people and agriculture: working together toward food sustainability

Young people and agriculture: working together toward food sustainability

August 30, 2019

Young people and agriculture: working together toward food sustainability

Fewer and fewer young people are working in agriculture, but the rift can be mended with new technologies and international commitment

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) explains this very clearly: there are jobs to spare in agriculture, but even so, young people do not seem to want to take the opportunity, with fewer and fewer of them working in this profession. Young people living in rural areas “do not perceive agriculture as a remunerative or prestigious profession, and until they find meaningful economic opportunities and attractive environments in rural areas, they will continue to migrate to cities,” reads the FAO's “Youth and Agriculture: Key Challenges and Concrete Solutions” report. This trend, in addition to contributing to the overpopulation of cities and unemployment in urban areas, will also have a strong impact on food production. Hence the push by FAO and other international organizations to try to invest in young people in agriculture, seen as the key to future food security and sustainability. 

Not a job for young people (anymore) 

Young people and agriculture are poor bedfellows. Or at least this can be the takeaway from the most recent data reported by the Food Sustainability Index (FSI), which assesses food sustainability and was established based on cooperation between the Barilla Foundation and The Economist Intelligence Unit. The 2018 report shows that the percentage of young people working in agriculture exceeds 50% in only three of the 67 countries assessed (62% in Rwanda, 60% in Zimbabwe and 57% in Zambia). In Europe, Romania has the highest proportion of young people in agriculture (17%) followed by Poland (9%), while in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America only 1 in 100 young people chooses this sector. The average age of farmers further reinforces the concept of an ageing agriculture industry. Although farmers in Senegal and Cameroon are on average 21 and 22 years old respectively, in Europe the average age of people working in the fields never falls below 45 and reaches 60 in the UK. According to the FSI, the oldest farmers are the Japanese, with an average age of 67 years. 

Six major challenges for young people and agriculture

It is estimated that by 2050 there will be 1.3 billion 15-24-year-olds, 14% of the world's population and a workforce essential to the sustainable farming system that will need to be introduced in order to meet the nutritional needs of a growing population. However, the data speak for themselves, confirming that young people are currently struggling to approach agriculture, mainly because of six major obstacles, detailed in the FAO report mentioned above. The first is undoubtedly the lack of access to knowledge, information and education, which limits productivity and new business initiatives in many areas. Secondly, it is now difficult for young people to get access to land, a requirement for an agricultural business. This obstacle is also related to young people's difficulty in accessing financial services (such as a loan) and thus the ability to invest in agriculture. The list of barriers driving young people away from agriculture is completed by limited access to ‘green’ and sustainable professions, for which too often young people are not sufficiently qualified, and the new generations’ lack of involvement in political discourse. As FAO experts explain, this exclusion from the political scene means that the authorities are unable to identify and best meet all the needs of the potential farmers of the future. 

Agriculture suitable for young people

Innovation and technology are now an integral part of the lives of many young people and experts say they could also be the key to bringing the young generations closer to agriculture. Precision farming systems are already an important part of the new farming methods: for example, drones can gather real-time data for better planning of agricultural practices. The agriculture of the future will see a wide range of apps, for example FAMEWS, a data gathering and sharing system designed to combat the spread of the fall armyworm, which has already caused massive damage to harvests in sub-Saharan Africa. Small-scale fishers can use the Abalobi app, which allows them to record data on fish caught and earnings, helping these communities become increasingly resilient and face global challenges such as climate change. Lastly, but only in order of launch, are several apps that provide real-time information about the risks to weather-related crops, the availability of raw materials on the market or demand for certain agricultural products, that is, how to produce, preserve and consume nutritious foods. 

Since digital skills, almost by definition, belong to younger people, this suggests that only the younger generations will be able to successfully assume the leading roles in the agriculture of the future.  

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