A message to the next generation: This is your opportunity. Make sure your voices are heard.

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By Kanayo F. Nwanze, CGIAR Special Representative to the UN Food Systems Summit 2021

The year 2020 has not been easy for today’s young people. Your education has been disrupted; you have been separated from your friends and family. You may have lost your job, or lost hope of finding work in uncertain economic times. But I am here to tell you: big changes are coming, and you need to be part of them.

After the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot simply hope that things will go back to normal. We now have a chance to do things differently, to use our knowledge to steer our shared future toward meeting global goals on climate change and sustainable development. We have the chance to build back a world that you, the youth, will want to inherit – and this starts with transforming food systems. We need you to be part of that process.

In 2021, the world will come together for the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS). I have high hopes for this summit, that we will not just see another declaration, but real commitment, funding and partnerships for change. As CGIAR Special Representative to the summit, I will be making the case for collective, science-based action to sustainably transform our food systems. I believe that our youth must be central to the discussions – after all, the decisions taken at this summit are ones that you will have to live with in the long term.

I recently had the privilege of meeting with some youth leaders via a webinar hosted by the SDG2 Advocacy Hub. Through the discussion, they put forward some excellent ideas on how to make changes to our food systems to ensure “good food for all”, such as making use of big data, supporting smallholder farmers, reconsidering the makeup of our daily diets and eating sustainably. I was heartened to see the passion and dedication among these young leaders to drive change in our food systems, and I will be glad to see them join next year’s summit.

Watch the webinar hosted by SDG2 Advocacy Hub, ‘Good Food For All – A Conversation with Youth Leaders’

However, there are millions more young people out there who have not yet realized their potential to change our food systems, and change the world. I want them to know that they, too, have the opportunity to help shape our future, and that their efforts and input are valued and supported.

The majority of the world’s youth are rural. There is a view among some experts that rural people know very little about agriculture or rural development. But I know this is not the case. In my career of more than 40 years in the agricultural research for development sector, I have spent time with rural communities across Asia, Africa and Latin America. And in my experience, rural people are the custodians of our culture, our traditions and  indigenous knowledge – and when they have access to even a little bit of money and some support, they are incredibly innovative and they can solve their problems. Rural youth, you have so much to offer.

And yet I often hear young people complain that they face obstacles in reaching their full potential – due to a lack of access to resources, finance, education, information and communication technologies, or simply the opportunity to get involved. For others, a lack of inspiration is the biggest barrier – you don’t see agriculture as a viable future pathway, or as an exciting business opportunity. To these young people, I say: do not wait for opportunity to walk up to you. It is all around you.

Consider for a moment the term “food systems”. This is relatively new terminology, but for me it really captures the scale of change we are trying to achieve, as well as the scale of opportunities for young people. Food is a way of life. It is our culture and traditions, it is how we come together. “Food systems” refers to every part of the cycle that makes that happen, from production through to harvesting, storage, transportation, distribution, marketing, sales, consumption, and what happens to our waste after we eat, giving a holistic view of our relationship to the environment. At every stage in that cycle, there is an opportunity for young people to get involved – to inject their energy and realize their dreams.

Agriculture in its broadest sense is business. It is the largest employer, a real money-making enterprise, and the foundation for sustainable development. Want to grow traditional crops? Become a traditional farmer. You want to go into storage? A huge opportunity. You want to go into transportation? Markets? Digital technology? Providing information to farmers? You name it. The possibilities are endless.

I urge you to dream big. But at the same time, remember to start small. Transformation is not a big bang. Like everything in nature, it’s a gradual process. There will be spikes, when you hit the threshold where something big happens, as I am predicting for next year’s UNFSS. But you have to work from the ground up. Every tree starts off as a seedling – you have to take care of it and let it grow.

In addition to this, do not discount the power of collective action. I hear a lot of young people blame their governments for the problems in their societies. Do not wait for your governments to act. You must organize yourselves, and lead your own movement for change, to ensure that today’s problems do not carry on to the next generation. You are capable of coming up with concrete, tangible ideas that can make a difference.

I set up a youth facility, FAYODE, with the 2016 Africa Food Prize money with the aim of inspiring and empowering rural young people to search out opportunities for entrepreneurship in agribusiness, and in doing so secure a bright future for themselves, their peers, and their communities.

CGIAR also supports young researchers, many of whom are working at the forefront of agriculture and climate science. The CLIFF-GRADS program run via CCAFS supports early-career scientists from developing countries to conduct research into climate change mitigation in agriculture. The Youth in Data initiatives, started by the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, help young people develop their skills in digital agriculture, making use of new technologies and big data. And the Youth Agripreneurs program, which was started by IITA in Nigeria, supports young people to incubate new agribusinesses as entrepreneurs. It now has more than 385 members operating 36 enterprises in 10 African countries.

We need to encourage young people like yourselves to meaningfully participate in the decision-making process around food systems by supporting your education and capacity development, supporting your career development, and supporting your roles as entrepreneurs, scientists and farmers. We need to make space for you in our discussions, respect your point of view, and, most of all, listen to what you have to say.

At next year’s UNFSS, the world will be listening for your input at a moment of great change. This summit will present opportunities for you – I urge you to seize them. Sustainable development needs young people, not only for your energy, creativity and fresh ideas, but because you are critical stakeholders and leaders in the future we are shaping. Your perspectives are essential to that process. Consider this your invitation.

Header photo: Members of the Lower Kamula Youth Group at their greenhouse in Kenya. Looking for a future in farming, the group members constructed a greenhouse and fish pond in their climate-smart village in Western Kenya, with training and support from CCAFS. Read more about how they are adapting traditional farming practices in response to climate change. Photo by C. Schubert/CCAFS

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