February 22, 2017 | By

A Food-Secure Future: Engaging Youth in Global Agriculture

On February 1, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs launched a new blog series, A Food-Secure Future, to explore the challenges that threaten global food security and the opportunities that exist to overcome hunger and malnutrition once and for all. We will publish one post each week addressing these issues, and our series will culminate with the release of a new Council report at the Global Food Security Symposium 2017. Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on March 30.

Young people are the future—and present—of agriculture. As we look to dramatically and sustainably scale-up agricultural production to meet the food and nutrition demands of the burgeoning global population, we need their ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and human capital. But there’s more we can be doing not only to connect global youth to opportunities in the agriculture sector, but to support their well-being and livelihoods.

Youth Populations Face Staggering Challenges

We’ve all seen the numbers: youth populations are growing tremendously, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. The world is home to 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24; about 90 percent of these young people live in low- and middle-income countries. It is likely that we will see 2 billion young people on the planet by 2050.

These large youth populations face difficulties when the societies they live in can’t support their needs. Youth unemployment is one such consequence, particularly in countries that face economic stagnation and little job growth: 71 million youth around the world, or 13.1 percent of the global youth population, are unemployed. And, in sub-Saharan Africa in particular, youth are more likely to be unemployed, or working in part-time, seasonal, or unstable jobs, than any other segment of the working population.

As a result, 300 million young people are classified as members of the working poor. Nearly a quarter of employed youth live on less than $1 per day. In the face of deep poverty and a dearth of opportunities, many young people have chosen to migrate—either to urban centers or abroad—in search of gainful employment.

This migration comes with its own set of problems. Unemployed young people who migrate to cities have sparked an “explosion” of urban slums—over 70 percent of urban slum residents are under 30. Young people may face hardships in urban environments, including prohibitive competition in job markets, social exclusion, and vulnerability to radicalization or victimization. We’ve also seen a rise in gang violence on behalf of young men between the ages of 15 and 25 in developing cities—the product of the congregation of idle, unemployed, and impoverished youth in challenging environments.

Meeting the Needs of Youth in Low Income Settings

In many ways, the global community is failing its young people. And often, the odds of success are stacked against the world's youth before they are even born. One in four children under five are stunted, either physically, cognitively, or both as a result of malnutrition in their first 1,000 days. These children may struggle to excel in educational or professional environments for their entirety of their lives as a result of this deprivation; we can’t expect to be raising productive and engaged youth populations under conditions like this.

Young people in low- and middle-income countries need access to higher education; to skills and job training; to gainful employment. Young women in particular struggle to gain this access, as they navigate the additional hurdles placed in front of them as a result of their gender. At the very least, we need better data that explains the status of young women related to employment and other measures; most data points are not gender-disaggregated and problem solve around male circumstances.

As it turns out, though, we can provide for some of these needs by better organizing the agricultural sector around the world’s youth. We can generate jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities for rural young people by expanding agribusiness value chains in low- and middle-income countries. We need to make it easier for young people to access land—particularly in Africa, where intergenerational land transfer is on the decline, and young people face difficulties in acquiring land holdings. Better developed markets for land rental and strengthened land tenure rights could alleviate some of these difficulties. We need to see more flexible mechanisms for finance and credit which are tailored to the needs of young entrepreneurs, and small-scale agriculture more generally. We need extension programs that can reach young farmers who are illiterate—as 140 million young people in low-income countries are. And, we need to provide young people access to educational opportunities and vocational training to enter other agricultural enterprises in various parts of the supply chain.

We can get youth better acquainted and excited about opportunities in agriculture by generating support for the sector in their enabling environments: among their families, faith-based communities, and in government ministries that focus on youth programming. We can get them excited about agriculture as a high-tech sector, where their technological savvy will be leveraged and valued. Drawing youth into the field will also involve investment in the overall productivity of small-scale agriculture—youth will remain engaged in the sector if their efforts generate sufficient yields and livelihoods.

A Win-Win

With the average age of farmers worldwide at 60 years old, engaging youth populations is a huge boon for the global food system. The youth bulge may prove particularly advantageous to places like Africa, where the young and growing workforce is highly valuable in our “aging world.” We need them to join the ranks of the agricultural sector to produce the amount of food needed to sustain the global population in an era of new challenges.

Agriculture is certainly not the silver bullet that will solve all the problems of the world’s youth, but given the size of the sector in low- and middle-income countries, agriculture can certainly provide gainful and fulfilling employment to a large proportion of disenfranchised young people. Let’s engage them in our collective future. 

Read previous posts in the Food-Secure Future series:


Innovation in the Face of Evolving Threats

Warding Off Instability and Conflict

The Promise and Power of Agricultural Development



The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.