This year at the #SRPConference2019, we are looking at the role of younger generations in the driving sustainability in food systems under Track 6: Sustainable Food Culture. Millennials are increasingly shaping up the agriculture supply chain— from the farm to the table. You’d assume that work in the agriculture sector would be losing its appeal given its close tie-in with poverty and laborious work with meagre returns. On top of this, the effects of climate change will exacerbate the already-unpredictable factors that the farmer has to deal with.
On the contrary, it’s becoming an emerging movement among millennials to go back to the plough. You may question if this is just one of the many fads that will eventually trail off. Out of farms, you’re also looking at a burgeoning pool of young investors looking to put their money where the green is, and agritech innovations that are improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers— especially in terms of knowledge sharing and connectivity to bring farmers closer to the capital/important inputs they need, and closer to their consumers as well.
Farm work is facing increasingly treacherous conditions, not only in the environmental sense but in its role in the economy. Consumer preferences are evolving quickly. We’re looking at a more urbanized world today and there goes the arable lands intended for agriculture. Yet, the human population continues to increase amid slow growth, and there is still the need to produce enough food. Henceforth, this calls for farmers to take on an entrepreneurial spirit, and to leverage on new technologies and innovative business models to drive efficiency and profitability in their farms. Not just the face of the farmer, the image of farming is gradually morphing (See interesting case study: Millennials are ditching golf communities for agrihoods).
For this generation, technology and science are high up the agenda in modern education which holds an important place in agriculture. Biotechnology holds tremendous potential to increase the production and productivity in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. For example, Beijing’s China Agricultural University ran the Science & Technology Backyard (STB) project where graduate students spend two years in the field with rural farmers to advise them on crop management practices and seed varieties that are best suited to the local conditions of their farms.
As we see, many more collaborations are happening between farmers and the academia. Local farmers have indigenous knowledge that are based on their experience in the fields which helps to fill in the limitations of standardized information by researchers.  Having a diversity of knowledge sources at hand, this can help to create new pathways in farming which takes on an approach that is both culturally inclusive and scientific/objective. Bridging the dichotomy between formal and informal skills holds tremendous potential to strengthen the resilience and sustainability of the agriculture sector.
Now moving onto the table (consumption), this generation with greater purchasing power is using their dollar as a vote to put pressure on agribusinesses to do more in terms of sustainability. Compared to previous generations, millennials are more likely to spend on organic, specialty and local produce, as well as in farm-to-table restaurants. Also, with greater demands for transparency through easy, recognizable labels and more natural ingredients in a product, “clean labelling” is a sunrise sector that’s turning into a billion-dollar opportunity for both well-established and start-up players.
With a greater affinity to social media and technology, this also means they have greater access to information to support their consumption choices and are better equipped with tools to articulate their demands to businesses. Changing consumption preferences will have an impact on the farm. For the longest time, CSR has been traditionally seen as a cost center and that businesses were fundamentally focused on delivering products to service the customer’s primary needs.
Today, factors like supply chain sustainability and the various impacts inflicted upon secondary stakeholders (and even what happens to the product after disposal!) are now within the scope of business’s concerns. Alongside growing competition in the market, businesses would need to step up their game and regard sustainability as one of the basic components of product/service delivery to their customers.
Given the high stakes on profit margins coupled with policy uncertainty, there’s a good chance that the private sector will emerge the new champions for sustainability – for instance, with Trump rolling back on environmental policies that were put forward in the Obama-era, over 2000 companies and investors, most of them based in the US, have indicated their commitment by signing an open letter, “Business Backs Low Carbon,” to remain in the Paris Agreement amid the US Government retreating from it.
Characterized by their dynamism and enthusiasm to participate, collaboration is key to engaging the many stakeholders in the agriculture value chain to drive sustainability in food systems, from farm to the table. Progress in this regard doesn’t just magically happen, and new pathways are created only when we change the “usual way” of how business gets done. Whether it’s social, environmental or financial sustainability, innovation is at the heart of transforming the world’s oldest profession and building it to last.
Thian Si Ying
Conference Producer, IBC Asia
The Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) is a multi-stakeholder partnership to promote resource efficiency and sustainability both on-farm and throughout the rice value chain. Launched in 2011, SRP is co-convened by the UN Environment and the International Rice Research Institute, and works in collaboration with over 100 institutional partners in the public and private sectors as well as the research, international development and NGO community.
Every two years, SRP brings together its members and the wider stakeholder community to discuss collaborative approaches and innovative solutions to critical sustainability challenges facing the global rice sector.
The 2nd Global Sustainable Rice Conference will focus on inspiring change, rethinking scenarios and collaborating, all with a common purpose. With a mix of plenary sessions and six conference streams designed to share technical knowledge, policy mechanisms, use cases and enabling technologies, this is a pivotal forum to drive transformation of the global rice sector and contribute to a range of global SDG targets, including food and water security, livelihoods, climate change, biodiversity and gender equality/women’s empowerment.