Youth Cop26: young people are central to changing the food system

Youth Cop26: young people are central to changing the food system

September 27, 2021

Youth Cop26: young people are central to changing the food system

Demographics and the data collected by various scholars show that interest in a healthy and sustainable diet is growing among the youngest in society, but it must also be supported by education on these topics and information that reinforces environmental protection values.

Current demographics, viewed from our rapidly aging countries, does not appear to favor the young. Globally, however, things are different. According to data from the International Fund for Agricultural Development - IFAD 2019 Creating Opportunities for Rural Youth report, the current generation of young people is the largest that humanity has ever had and most of them now live in middle to low income countries in Asia and Africa,

which is why the interests and habits of this generation are so important: they are all entitled to live a long and stable life, a complex goal in a period of ecological stress due to climate change, further worsened by the pandemic crisis.

“The life stories of this generation and their children will mark and strongly influence the economic, social and political development of the coming decades.  Their lives will reflect the success or failure of humanity in the transition to a development that is environmentally more sustainable and socially fairer”, write Dominic Glover and James Sumberg of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, UK, in a long article dedicated to young people and food systems published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.

Opportunities and risks of youth inflation

Young people have re-emerged in recent years as a central element of politics, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

One of the main reasons for this is the increase in the percentage of young people in the populations of countries where infant and child mortality rates have decreased significantly due to a general improvement in quality of life (a phenomenon known as “youth inflation”), while fertility rates have remained high because changes in social structures and family roles have been slower.  

Out of a total population of 1.2 billion people classified by the UN as young (15-24 years old), nearly one billion are in developing countries, but the challenge of youth inflation is largely concentrated in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa which, according to the IFAD 2019 report, recorded the lowest levels of transformation of agricultural production and rural life, as well as of national economic production structures. 

Young people, says IFAD, present both an opportunity and a challenge for the poorest countries. On the one hand they bring energy, health and ambition, as well as new prospects to drive economic development. On the other, they have justified economic and social demands that can destabilize subsistence economies, which are accustomed, when they can, to producing what is strictly required for physical subsistence.

In 2014, FAO was already promoting the mobilization of young generations of food producers and consumers as potential innovators and entrepreneurs, as well as political actors, to transform food systems. But that is not enough.

“Although the action of individuals and groups can shape food systems to some extent, especially at the very local level, the highly connected and integrated nature of contemporary food requires interventions that go beyond the individual. Changes in the composition of global food stocks and diets in recent decades are a good example of what I am saying”, Glover and Sumberg continue. 

International trade, for example, has diversified the range of foods available to consumers: the global food supply and the diets of many consumers are becoming increasingly standardized in different parts of the world, and young people, attentive to global trends, are the protagonists of this change in what is put on the table, for better or worse.  

It is therefore important for younger people to understand that, while the world of food production celebrates the increasing amount of choice, especially in rich countries, for the vast majority of humanity choosing what to produce, what to consume and where to get it is often hard. In the complex modern food production system, individuals, and in particular young people, therefore have a specific role to play in educating people and modifying their individual habits to make healthy and sustainable food choices, influencing fashions and the way food is eaten to ensure that the choices which are most appropriate for the planet become cool and attractive. 

More information and education

In order to do this, however, they need to be more informed than they often are about this specific area of public discussion related to climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals. A survey conducted by IPSOS on behalf of the Barilla Foundation and ASviS on a sample of 800 young people between the ages of 14 and 27 shows that, among Italians, there is a willingness to fight the battle to reduce the human impact on climate change but there is a lack of awareness of the strategies that need to be implemented to achieve results.

Young people know little about the Sustainable Development Goals and, above all, they are unaware of the extent to which agricultural production and the food they consume impact on their achievement. 

Only 1 in 3 of those who those who know about sustainability, think that the well-being of the planet also depends on what we put on our plates: which is a pity if you think that in actual fact agricultural production is responsible for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions.  

Only one awareness emerges among young people, which is that reducing food waste is the most important sustainable behavior to adopt. In fact, 50% of them think so.

According to the data collected, 44% of young Italians are uninformed about politics, current affairs and economics, and only 15% are attentive and constantly informed. And in fact, as often happens even among older ones, the young tend to associate sustainability with environmental aspects alone, while the equally important themes of sustainability associated with the economy (13%), society (9%), food and nutrition (9%) remain in the background.

The lack of information correlates directly with general behavior and the different everyday attitudes to food waste and sustainable food choices: attentive young people and informed young people tend to prefer products from sustainable agriculture, always reading food labels carefully and constantly striving to avoid wasting water.  

However, even those who are best at following good rules of behavior and a nutritionally balanced diet, still lack a holistic view of what food sustainability means. Among the 14-15 year olds, less than a third have learned the concept of sustainability, but the percentage tends to increase with age and is just over 50% among the older ones (24-27 year olds).  

45% of the sample who know the subject well or at least superficially received information from school or university, while in the 24-27 age group the main source is the media, and in particular the web and newspapers. 

Ideal tension

In fact, being familiar with the SDGs is not a sufficient condition for young people to consider it an urgent duty to act now. What makes the difference, however, is the sense of involvement in taking charge of the problem, regardless of any qualified knowledge of the issue. 

When we are young, our lives usually involve making major lifestyle changes, which can affect our eating habits and diets: this is the time when food choices can be influenced in a positive or negative direction by families, peer groups and schools.  This is why it is important to act in these three areas to increase awareness of healthy and sustainable nutrition among young people.

A study conducted by Audra Balundé of the University of Groeningen in the Netherlands and published in Frontiers in Psychology at the end of 2020 sought to shed light on the psychological mechanisms that induce younger people to adopt environmentally friendly behaviors.

Values are the general goals or ideals of people that guide their behavior in life. Four values have proved important in explaining people’s respectful behavior towards the Planet: taking care of nature and the environment, taking care of others (what we might call altruism), taking care of one's personal resources (selfishness) and hedonistic values (i.e. seeking pleasure and comfort)”, explains Balundé.  “But the first of these, namely care of nature and the environment, is the most important in terms of its impact on practical behavior in the lives of young people. Those who share these values choose more often not to waste, to recycle, to save water and so on. This has important ramifications for policy, because previous studies show that if we want young people who are attentive to environmental problems we need to explain to them how the environment, and the science behind its conservation, work. We need to do this in schools and learning environments, but not only. We also need to do it through information channels and the tools typically used by that age group, hence the web and social media”.

But how important is it for young people to put the rules of a health and sustainable diet into practice? One answer comes from a study published by Nicole Larson in Public Health Nutrition in 2019, in the context of the Eat (Eating and Activity among Teens and Young Adults) Project, which compared the answers to a questionnaire about eating habits among a group of young people in 2003-2004 and 2015-2016. “We saw increasing awareness of these issues”, explains Larson. “While in the first survey only 8.1% of respondents felt it was important to cultivate organically, in the second survey this was essential for 26.9% of the sample. Eating less processed food was important for 11.3% of young people in the early 2000s and for 37% 15 years later. As for eating locally grown food, the percentage increased from 8.3% to 30.9%”. It is even more reassuring to see that awareness has also led to behavioral changes: the number of meals prepared at home has increased, food is chosen more carefully and waste reduced.

These are important percentages as they show that change is already taking place among the young and how institutions, schools and the media need to make greater efforts to deliver a loud and clear message to all young people that the right food choices are good for the environment as well as their health.

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