On Wednesday I had the honour of speaking at the 20th Anniversary of the Food Ethics Council. This panel was different from some of my previous speeches (where I've talked primarily about the value of youth social action). It should be no surprise that, with my experience of setting up Hundred River Farm and running Beccles Farmers Market, I was highlighting the need for young people to be more engaged in conversations around the future of food and farming in the UK.
As a recent survey commissioned by the Food Ethics Council shows, it is most likely to be young people that will lead the much-needed shift in mindset and attitudes about the food we eat and the impact it has on the world. This particular survey showed UK generations are divided on how fair our food system is, with around half of 16 to 24-year-olds expressing concerns about some of the ways we are producing and consuming our food.
Many in my age group are understandably worried that Brexit will adversely affect small-scale farmers, as well as our food system at large. Many also worry that the UK’s exit from the European Union will have having a detrimental impact on farm animal welfare and the environment. However, despite its challenges, I also believe Brexit provides us with a unique opportunity to accelerate our move towards a fairer and more sustainable food system.
The Populus poll, commissioned by the Food Ethics Council for its 20th anniversary, interviewed a nationally representative sample of 2,131 respondents in the UK. Respondents were asked whether the food system was ‘fair’ to people in the UK, to those working in food and farming in the UK and developing countries, to the natural environment and farm animals.
For younger generations, farm animal welfare and the natural environment are key concerns; 55% of 16 to 24-year-olds surveyed believe that the food system is ‘unfair’ to farm animals, compared to just 32% of over 65s, and 46% of 16 to 24-year-olds say it is ‘unfair’ to the natural environment – for those aged 55 to 64 and the over 65s this figure falls to 28%.
So why is there such a difference in perception? In my opinion, this is partly because advances in technology mean younger people are now more aware of the environmental impact of our everyday actions. Don’t get me wrong, it's certainly not all roses, but the internet provides a great platform to connect, share ideas and hear inspiring stories about innovations in tackling environmental and food production challenges that are being developed all over the world.
If (like me) you’ve ever tried to teach your grandparents to use a computer, let alone the internet, you will have quickly developed an appreciation for just how 'worlds apart' our generations can feel. That’s why, for me, it’s hardly surprising that young people in the UK would be more inclined to focus on the potential longer-term repercussions of a decision like Brexit, and on animal welfare and the environment.
Moreover, many UK adults are now indoors for 90% of their time, and some studies have found that children aged five to 16 spend up to 40% of their days looking at screens. With the world population still expanding rapidly, one of our most significant collective challenges is to produce enough food without irrevocably damaging our environment. This is achievable but requires us to do much more to capitalise on young people's desire to see a fairer and more sustainable food system.
In particular, by supporting more young people to take part in environmentally focused social action projects, we can develop their skills as well as their understanding of the challenges we face. And more importantly, we can also equip them with the fundamental belief in their individual and collective capacity to change things for the better.
If you're interested in supporting environmental social action opportunities for young people you can pledge your organisations support to the #iwill campaign (just like DEFRA - check out their pledge here).