Food policy takes a youthful turn

We hear a lot of discussion about how the agriculture industry is going to ramp up production enough to feed improved diets to the nine billion people predicted to be on this earth by 2050. And while this was the theme of the 2015 Youth Ag-Summit in Canberra, Australia, the approach was quite different from other events I’ve covered.

First, there were the delegates themselves. The Summit drew about 100 young leaders from 33 countries. They were all between the ages of 18 and 25, which had the side effect of making the rest of us feel old. But this age group has a big stake in the challenge of feeding that ballooning population without depleting our resources. After all, today’s young adults will be around to see whether we chose the right course or not.

But their youth wasn’t the most striking thing about this crew. It was their diversity. Some were former farm kids who now farm themselves, work in the ag sector, or attend university. But many others were studying or working in fields such as medicine, law, international relations and environmental science.

That rural-urban gap was apparent at times. For example, during a field trip to a research station, professional shearer Ian Elkins treated the delegates to a sheepshearing demonstration. As an aside, Elkins was the man who recently sheared a record 40-kg of fleece off a sheep that had managed to avoid the shearing shed for several years.

Afterwards, as I snapped pictures of the newly-shorn sheep, I started chatting with a couple of delegates who were concerned the sheep might suffer hypothermia (it was late winter in Australia). I explained why sheep had to be sheared before summer, while admitting I didn’t know everything about sheep production. Later I wondered if they’d seen a sheep shearing before that day. ยป

But this Summit wasn’t about educating city kids. Everyone there had a different perspective on the food supply chain. And putting those different points of view together generated a bigpicture view. The conference agenda also included presentations by a selection of economists, researchers and other experts.

If you’ve been to a few conferences, you’ll know that conversations during breaks are often the best parts. The Youth Ag-Summit organizers built on this, setting aside time for breakout sessions so delegates could collaborate on solutions for sustainably feeding a hungry planet.

In chatting with delegates, the energy around this collaboration came up again and again. Bollem Raj Kumar is a mechanical engineer and spatial analyst from India. He and his colleagues designed a solar-powered machine that does everything from sowing to spraying. Bollem said one of the most exciting things was working with people from developed, developing and undeveloped economies with diversified backgrounds. “Everyone has a story to tell about their experiences in the field of agriculture and the message is all about ‘feeding a hungry planet,'” he said.

In fact, when asked about what needed to be improved, he suggested giving every delegate a few minutes to speak in front of everyone. This would spur more interaction, Bollem said.

So what was the end result of all this? For one, the delegates drafted the Canberra Youth Ag Declaration from their recommendation on approaching the conundrum of feeding people sustainably. Kenya’s Samba Ouma and Australia’s Laura Grubb were selected from the delegates to present the declaration to the United Nations Committee on World Food Security in Rome this October.

On an individual level, each delegate was asked to come up with “three little things” they could do in their local communities. Bollem said his three little things were: to inspire, innovate and invest.

When I contacted Bollem for this story, he was already back to work, researching technology that would be reliable, sustainable and economical for farmers. The connections he made at the Summit will give him “a huge pile of opportunities” to implement his ideas and innovations, he said. And staying connected with the delegates through social media would allow him to hear new ideas and discussions, he added.

The last day of the Summit is what sticks in my mind the most. For several days, delegates had been listening to speakers, working in breakout sessions and attending evening events. Yet they still had plenty of gas left in the tank. They finalized and presented their ideas for the Youth Ag Declaration. When Grubb and Ouma were announced as the UN ambassadors, the crowd erupted into cheers and applause. At one point, Summit moderator Simon Pampena joked that the atmosphere was like a spiritual revival.

The official program closed and Pampena organized one last group selfie. Delegates cheered as they crowded into the picture, hoisting large cardboard fruit over their heads. “The banana’s in the way,” Pampena yelled as he tried to snap a picture.

Then it was off to the National Portrait Gallery for the last reception. The evening’s soundtrack was loud dance music. Baarbara, a cardboard sheep that was a mascot of sorts, made a cameo appearance on the dance floor. “Those kids have a lot of energy,” I thought, as I snuck out on the first bus at 10 p.m.

Of course, the question is whether they can sustain that momentum. Will the delegates follow through with their three little things, whatever they may be? What will happen after Ouma and Grubb present the declaration to the UN? Will delegates keep working together on that goal of feeding nine billion sustainably?

I don’t know the answers to those questions. But Bayer CropScience and organizations like Australia’s Future Farmers Network are banking on young leaders to find solutions to the big problems facing modern agriculture. And after talking with Bollem and his cohort, it seems the Summit sponsors have put their money on the right people.