August 12, 2021
This year’s International Youth Day focuses on the role of youth innovation in transforming food systems. Overwhelmingly, youth have identified that a recovery from COVID-19 should include adapting our food systems to address human health, environmental destruction, and equitable access to food. On this day, we are reflecting on why youth innovation is crucial for thriving, sustainable and equitable food systems and how policy can enable such action.
Canada’s food system is far from perfect. In 2018, food insecurity was reported at 12.7% within Canadian households. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, that percentage jumped to 14.6% of households. Food insecurity in Canada disproportionately impacts those living in the North - in 2018, the percentage of insecurity within Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut was 16.9%, 21.6% and 57%, respectively. Insecurity does not arise from a lack of food; Canada wastes an estimated 60% of all food produced, of which 32% is edible and lost due to reasons like processing inefficiencies or a lack of infrastructure to recover processing by-products. Food loss is a lost opportunity to feed Canadians, and has negative economic and environmental impacts. For instance, preventing the 11.2 million metric tonnes of avoidable waste can save $49.5 billion annually. Furthermore, mismanaged food waste emits methane, a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 25 times higher than carbon dioxide. To adequately address these complex challenges, youth voices are needed for their perspectives on food security, economic growth, and sustainable and circular food systems.
Calls for active youth engagement in food systems are gaining traction. Youth participation, through employment and labour, can improve food security and nutrition, strengthen social capital, increase visibility in the agri-food system, and encourage retention in local communities. Recent trends in Canada’s food system make it economically advantageous to encourage youth engagement and innovation. Canada’s farm employment has dropped by 31% in the last 20 years and by 2025 25% of farmers will be 65 or older; a new generation of farmers need to be trained. Furthermore, a 4th agriculture revolution is occurring wherein advanced technologies in agriculture are being increasingly integrated; and youth are major early adopters. These conditions create a perfect opportunity for more youth employment in food production and will be important as Canada looks to increase its agricultural exports to $75 billion by 2027.
Today’s youth offer skills and perspectives that are unique to the group. Young people are intimately tied to their communities, therefore apply lived experiences, and reflect local realities and traditional and cultural knowledge for local food innovation. They also possess digital and entrepreneurial skills, enabling them to access niche markets and create innovative business models. Finally, this generation is heavily invested in sustainability and environmental efforts. Youth provide an untapped opportunity to find novel solutions for our food challenges while also contributing to economic prosperity for the future.
Young Canadians are innovating by building networks for ecological and regenerative farming, creating business opportunities to address food waste, and educating their local communities on resilience for food security, to name a few examples. Momentum for local, youth-driven solutions is building. However, youth are faced with regulatory barriers or face limited access to credit, markets, land and skills, impeding their ability to implement and scale up initiatives. These barriers, such as unpaid internship or learning opportunities, are even more significant among historically marginalized groups. Although Canada has introduced a number of youth innovation-focused policy initiatives in recent years like the Enabling Accessibility Fund, Canada’s first youth policy, and MindFuel’s support of the youth innovation sector, there is still limited focus on youth innovation in food systems.
Targeted policy support can alleviate some of these challenges and further promote youth innovation. Young innovators and entrepreneurs are already contributing to and transforming food systems around the world and in Canada. Therefore, it is critical that Canadian policy-makers keep pace to further engage and include youth-led solutions rather than putting up financial, mentoring, business development, and regulatory obstacles. The City of Guelph, for example, has recognized youth’s role in their circular food economy and aims to create training opportunities for the integration of youth and marginalized populations.
Today’s youth are on the frontline of a precipice - climate change and environmental effects are likely to accelerate and intensify in their lifetime, as is economic insecurity. As current leaders, youth can and should play a key role in shaping their future and that of future generations. Creating space for active youth engagement and innovation will determine how sustainable, prosperous, and equitable our food systems can be.