Young agriculturalists propose their agenda for healthy diets

FAO's Student Interactive SessionEight universities from Brazil, Ghana, Morocco, Thailand, Norway, USA, Italy and Belgium took part in the Student Interactive Session during the International Symposium on Sustainable Food Systems for Healthy Diets and Improved Nutrition. This was held at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s Headquarters, in November 2016.

The students expressed their concern with the current food systems, particularly impacted by international dynamics. They stressed what they see as a necessity for ensuring healthy and nutritive food for all and on a long term. These include: preserving local and traditional food, and food sovereignty in all countries, involving the youth and increasing their interest in agriculture, as well as tackling food waste and ensuring nutritive food in a world that promotes productivity.

Being able to make healthy choices as a consumer

Particular youth’s concern with Food Systems is on how they affect people’s abilities to make healthy food choices. Norway students denounced abusive production, marketing and commercial pressure for products that are detrimental for health: “We need to ensure that healthy foods are available and accessible to all. The way current food environments are built greatly affects what we buy and eat. Food is presented in stores, restaurants & cafés to promote sales of foods high in sugar, fats and salt. Also, food marketing to children has been identified as a major contributing factor to obesity.”

Brazilian students messages focused on the difficulty to identify trustworthy information about nutrition. They stressed the necessity to always be aware of how the food industry can manipulate information. They also asked: “how do we ensure healthy choices through the products we buy while affording these healthy diet? High income inequality contributes to inadequate food access and worsens health and nutritional status. Anemia, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity are the main nutritional concerns, in Latin America.”

Students also condemned the role of transnational food corporations in generating ultra-processed foods over fresh locally produced food. For example, it was said that Brazilian native seeds have been set aside and their food sovereignty has been called into question. Food itself has become global and detatched from local seasons and environment. How can regions remain competitive within the Global Food Systems and still safeguard domestic production, consumption and cultural practices?

The case of the “Smart Farmer” project

In Thailand, while agriculture can unconditionally fulfil the nutrition requirements of the Thai population, food exportation and the aim to generate income took over efforts for adequate local consumption and food security. Production efforts to meet the competitive world market accelerated the environmental destruction and at its turn, yields losses, soil quality degradation, and the deterioration of the water resources contribute to the vicious cycle of poverty. Farmers in supplying countries are getting poorer and poorer, and the country’s food and nutrition security is deeply affected.

Thai “Smart Farmer” project equips farmers with knowledge to critically think, plan and ethically produce quality agriculture. It also stimulates farmers to be proud of their profession, and aims to attract young farmers. The Thai agriculture strategy focuses on sustaining farmers as professionals as well as the food and nutrition security of the country.

Ensuring that private and public stakeholders provide healthy choices

Norway students expressed how glad they were to see actors from food industry, grocery and catering industry involved in discussions to tackle food systems abuses. However, they also mentioned how much they would like the process of multi-stakeholders engagement to avoid conflict of interests. To what extent it is possible to conciliate economic interests with public health interests in food systems? To what extent do consumers have the freedom to make the best choices in an environment that is not supportive of best choices?

They vehemently asked: is the unrestricted marketing of unhealthy foods to children a violation of their human rights to food and health? Is allowing aggressive marketing to children in line with respecting and promoting the child’s best interests? How can we influence governments and the food industry globally to put in place strong restrictions to food marketing to children? How can governments engage effectively with different stakeholders to facilitate healthy food environments?

And the Brazilian students to add: how can Governments guarantee that social control is present at all levels of the public policy making process and inclusive? How can our food sovereignty and our social right for Adequate Food be respected and protected in Food Systems? Does cutting financial investment in education and academic research sound like a good way to deal with the economic crisis?

Beyond the conference room’s walls

A one-hour session brought more questions than responses but this presented a unique opportunity provided by UNFAO for students to voice their concerns directly to experts and policy makers.

The session which was webcasted and live-tweeted, with republishing on Facebook, attracted viewers, comments and questions from all over the world and particularly from young professionals from the YPARD community.

Brazilian students summed up the reason for this session perfectly: “We can’t go back to the past. The Food Systems have to evolve and we: students, young professionals, researchers, politicians have to do it, together.”

You can watch the replay of the Students Interactive Session here.

Discover the eight universities who contributed to the discussions:

Photo credit: ©FAO/Alessandra Benedetti. Editorial use only. Copyright ©FAO