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Global food insecurity : Could the next generation have the answer?

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17th-Jul-2017       
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Adrian Percy :
How many teenagers do you know who would list 'farmer' as their dream job? Chances are, very few. From Aberdeen to Accra, farming is declining in popularity. Young people are put off by the long hours, low pay, and a perceived lack of opportunities for career growth. Right now, the agriculture sector employs around 40% of the global workforce - rising to 65% across Africa - but most of these farmers are over the age of 50. There are fewer and fewer young people willing to take on the seemingly thankless task of running a farm.
This is a worrying trend, particularly when you consider that the world's population is set to reach almost 10 billion people by 2050. On top of this, current resources are already under threat from soaring global temperatures and dwindling water supplies - the undeniable effects of climate change. In future, we're going to have to do more with less.
Within the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN recognises that to tackle world hunger, we need to radically transform how we grow, share and consume our food. To do this, we'll need a new generation of farmers working on collaborative, technology-driven solutions to an increasingly threatened global food supply.
At the Youth Ag-Summit taking place in Brussels this October, 100 young leaders from within the agricultural sector will get together to debate the challenges and opportunities facing modern farming, and to translate their ideas into action. These delegates are leading a new wave of agricultural advocacy - from driving agricultural training programmes in urban areas, to embarking on social entrepreneurship.
Although the delegates are from 49 different countries, they have more in common than you might expect. One point of agreement was that the lack of interest from their peers in pursuing a career in agriculture is often due to outdated ideas about what it means to be a farmer in the 21st century.
For instance, how many young people consider farming - which humans have practised for over 10,000 years - to be a cutting-edge sector? Yet across the globe, practices such as precision farming are already using drones, GPS technology and even robots to improve productivity.
Thanks to the Internet of Things, sensors embedded in the soil let farmers known when to plant or harvest their crops. And any farmer with a smartphone can now gain a business advantage by checking the market value of their produce in real-time.
Today's generation of digital natives is perfectly suited to wield these new tools for the benefit of future farming. But herein lies the next challenge.
Young people need encouragement in the form of training and resources to consider farming as a viable career. Without sufficient public and private sector investment in agricultural education and innovation, young people will continue to be turned off the profession.
Global leaders already agree that to address food insecurity, we must align agricultural methods and use technology to transform farming into an innovative, forward-looking sector. The new Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU has promised to focus on the "sustainability and competitiveness of EU agriculture", whilst also implementing digital solutions and technologies as an enabler for international development beyond Europe's borders.
But whether at home or abroad, this modernisation can only happen with the active involvement of young people.
It's therefore encouraging to see a focus on promoting intercontinental cooperation of young people in the Estonian Presidency's plans for the upcoming 5th EU-Africa Summit. This is a good start.
But listening to young people's voices when it comes to tackling food security issues needs to become the norm, not the exception. After all, these are the people we are relying on to feed the future.

(Adrian Percy is the head of Research & Development at Bayer Crop Science).

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