This month saw another milestone moment for rural youth and their invaluable role in shaping a resilient food system nationally and worldwide. For three days I attended the Rural Youth Ideas Festival, part of the Rural Youth Project, working alongside 100 young leaders aged 18-28 from 9 countries.
The Festival has arrived during another wave of agri-food reports, highlighting key trends and challenges that feed into what seems like an almost endless conversation on post-Brexit policy landscaping where business-as-usual is as exhausted as the usual suspects themselves. The good news is that the sort of people I met at the festival, are exactly the sort of ‘unusual’ suspects that I think we need to transform the current post-Brexit discussions into an informed, proactive and inclusive framework for a more resilient food system. However, a mental shift is heavily overdue to move from appreciating this burst of ‘youth’ as a welcome PR feel-good distraction and a peripheral ‘phase’, to seriously considering how best to utilise, and include, this long-term movement of young leaders in agriculture when it comes to post-Brexit policy making.
So how exactly are we going to do this?
Excitingly, the Rural Youth Ideas Festival offered up three ways in which we can make this shift happen, and hopefully very soon:
Mentorship was applauded and endorsed by all participants of the Festival, regardless of age, as a powerful tool that has the capacity to harness the new perspectives and ideas of the ‘younger’ generations, with the experience, resource, and foundational knowledge of the ‘older’ generations. This desire for mentorship to develop from an emerging trend to something more established and common practice in agri-food is echoed across the youth movement nationally and worldwide. For instance, Cassie Hayward, Canadian delegate for the Youth Ag Summit 2017, explains this need for mentorship well in her recent article on why policy makers should listen and engage more with young innovators.
So what is it going to take to see this through? Do we need top-down policy guidance as well as grass-root willingness in order to supply this noticeable demand? Some of the young leaders at the Festival are already taking steps to facilitate mentorship as part of personal and business development. Perhaps we simply need to keep supporting the growth of initiatives such as the Rural Youth Project or industry-academic collaborations like IFSTAL or N8 to establish this tool. Either way, I know from experience that the more we support one another and provide the space to voice ideas and share resource and perspectives, the more effective and smarter the solutions will be for a sustainable future.
According to the Rural Youth Project survey presented at the Festival, there are significant problems with access to sufficient broadband speed, poor public transport and employment opportunities in rural areas. Whilst it was clear from the Festival that young leaders are doing what they can to overcome these barriers, access to these essential resources must be delivered sharpish if we are to face up to the sustainability challenges that are being raised in Brexit policy discussions. This is a message that we are seeing across the agricultural industry and whilst these barriers are nothing new initiatives like the Rural Youth Project affirm the need for this connectivity especially, as the Rural Youth Project survey pointed out; rural youth are the lifeblood of the rural community.
A central characteristic to the Festival and indeed all of the initiatives that I have participated, or been involved in, has been the power of storytelling. At the heart of this characteristic is the desire to celebrate common ground and a common goal; building a more sustainable and resilient global food system through communities and in turn a more sustainable future. The Festival was shaped by the stories of some incredible young leaders all who have overcome the odds to add value to their local rural communities and to consumers. These stories are the backbone of the global youth movement, and have proven to be a very powerful tool to energise and inspire a new approach to decision-making worldwide across the generations. This is exactly what brought the Youth Ag Summit to the attention of Parliamentarians and industry leaders in November last year when three young leaders shared their story of Agriculture in Westminster, and why programmes like IFSTAL and N8 exist, creating a common narrative that unites the often disconnected parts of the food system.
Despite the uncertainty of the future policy landscape of post-Brexit Britain, what is certain is that there is an increasing number of young leaders invested in the long-run in ensuring a more sustainable food system, and they do not want to just do it alone but rather engage with all stakeholders across agri-food sectors. It is time to start taking this seriously, and these three outcomes from the Rural Youth Ideas Festival should be considered as essential next steps to be taken if we are to unlock the potential of this global movement and truly appreciate the value of cross-generational collaboration in agri-food governance.