Over the past weeks, our newspapers and social media feeds have been dominated with devastating images of Australia’s bushlands burning to the ground. Forests on fire, soils drying, glaciers melting - these wake-up calls that climate change is having irreversible effects on nature and all living species now come on a near-constant basis. Our planet is at a tipping point.
Despite these unprecedented challenges, I remain optimistic that profound positive transformation is still possible. The biggest opportunity we have to create the change our world needs lies in fixing our food system, and specifically in making agriculture attractive to our world’s young people.
Agriculture is the biggest lever we have to solve climate change and the other global Sustainable Development Goals. How our food is produced, consumed, and (unfortunately) wasted contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, and it is also the most impacted by changing temperatures.
As The Honourable Tun Dr. Abdul Daim bin Zainuddin, Chairman of the Malaysian Council of Eminent Persons appointed by the Prime Minister of Malaysia, recently pointed out, revitalizing the agricultural sector also makes economic sense, and will reduce Malaysia’s food import bill and lift millions out of poverty.
Young people are powerful catalysts of innovation and action. As digital and sustainability natives, they possess the mindsets, values and leadership skills required to affect systemic change quickly and at scale. Up until now, youth have shied away from agriculture, viewing it as an outdated industry without exciting prospects. But this is changing. 2018 was a record-breaking year for money flowing to food-tech and ag-tech startups, with investments jumping by more than 40% to reach US$17 billion globally.
There are currently 1.8 billion people on the planet between the ages of 15 and 29, and more than 213 million of these young people live in ASEAN countries. Millennials and GenZs constitute the largest-ever youth populations. By the numbers, they are also the most diverse, well-educated, technologically-savvy, and globally-connected generations that the world has ever seen.
Today’s young people have extraordinary access to knowledge, technologies and capital that was once only available at big universities, corporations, or to the world's elite. Things like: open-source software to build apps, websites and other digital platforms in a day; online educational programs and DIY kits to learn, build, and tinker outside the confines of expensive institutions and labs; maker-spaces equipped with cheaply-to-use production resources like 3D printers, laser cutters and digital modelling equipment; instant text or speech translation tools that erode language and cultural barriers; artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques that eliminate human biases and enable data-driven analysis and decisions; crowdsourcing platforms to financially support all kinds of entrepreneurial ventures and causes; and smartphones to connect and collaborate with individuals and communities in every part of the world.
By leveraging these tools and technologies, and by working together through the collaborative innovation approaches that today’s digital connectivity makes possible, young people worldwide are jumping in eagerly to solve our food system’s most pressing problems. They are openly sharing their ideas and know-how with each other, helping to accelerate impact, while also reducing inefficient and duplicative innovation efforts.
The countries in ASEAN face many challenges, such as food insecurity, rising temperatures and changing weather patterns from climate change. But young people see these problems as opportunities filled with ample spaces for their new ideas and innovations. What is exciting to see is that they are not waiting for solutions to reach them from outside, more mature markets. They are leapfrogging ahead, leveraging the latest cutting-edge technologies and business models without having to upend existing infrastructures or deeply-embedded legacy systems.
Many of the governments, NGOs and private sector groups across ASEAN are stepping in to build enabling policies and ecosystems that support innovation and entrepreneurship, recognizing the incredible market potential of young consumers who are spending more money on food and care more than ever about how it is produced.
Thought For Food (TFF) is the world’s leading organization dedicated to empowering the next generation of food and agricultural innovators and entrepreneurs. This March, we are kicking off a partnership with the Sunway Group, the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation, and the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI) to galvanize food-and-agriculture-focused youth entrepreneurship and technological innovation in Malaysia and across the entire ASEAN region. Together, we aim to improve economic opportunities for smallholders, increase environmental sustainability and resilience, and enhance consumer health and nutrition.
We are organizing the TFF Academy at Sunway iLabs, a week-long incubator program for food and agricultural startups from around the world, and the TFF Summit, our flagship event where global, local and regional corporations, policy leaders and startups explore the frontiers of our food system. Additionally, we will hold a Biodiversity Expedition in Borneo, a Sustainable Rice Retreat in Kedah and take part in the launch of the Urban Farming Hub at iLabs Future X at Sunway City in Kuala Lumpur. These events are focused on fostering global connections, discovering valuable innovation and investment opportunities, and co-creating real, “on the ground” solutions that can be taken forward across the entire ASEAN region.
Southeast Asia’s climatic conditions, surging youth populations, and diverse food and agricultural opportunities provide an exciting opportunity for it to become the epicenter for sustainable agri-food-tech innovation. By empowering the region’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystems and dedicating more technical, human and financial resources to support youth as innovators and solutions-builders, we will develop the essential collaborative capabilities, transformational technologies, and impactful social enterprises required to make food and agriculture a vibrant sector, rife with possibility and profitability for the future.
Christine Gould is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Thought For Food.