Insights from the World Food Forum

09.11.2023 Being involved in an international conference with 5000 attendees is an eye-opening learning experience. Four HAFL staff/students reflect on their time at the recent FAO World Food Forum in Rome.

Group International Agriculture assistants Célia Bühler, Katharina Ineichen and Micha Fournier and Food, Nutrition and Health MSc student Sucheta Mitra represented HAFL and Switzerland at the week-long event.

Three forums, as well as many events and workshops, ran in parallel from 16-20 October; our delegation took part in the Global Youth Forum. All events focused on this year’s theme “Agrifood systems transformation accelerates climate action.”

We interviewed them before they left, so what do they think about the FAO World Food Forum now? Did it live up to their expectations? And what ideas will they bring back to HAFL?

What was the best workshop you attended or message you heard?

Sucheta: One session that stood out was the workshop on the FAST Initiative and Youth Finance. This session emphasised the significance of multi-stakeholder partnerships to achieve triple wins – for climate, people, and nature. The insights shared highlighted the importance of collaborative efforts in addressing global challenges. Additionally, the Regional Youth Assembly session in the Europe and Central Asia Region was impactful, as attendees collaborated to brainstorm ideas on scaling up initiatives to reduce food loss and waste. It showcased the power of collective thinking and innovative solutions, leaving a lasting impression on my approach to addressing food security issues.

Micha: The existence of an international coalition of indigenous youth – the United Nations Global Indigenous Youth Forum (UNGIYF).

Katharina: The Youth Assemblies, such as the African and European Assemblies, were a highlight for me. I appreciated these events, as they encouraged participants to engage in meaningful discussions and provided the time and space to hear different perspectives, ideas, experiences, and opinions.

Célia: The speech from Prince Hassan bin Talal of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Did you meet people you would like to collaborate with?

Katharina: I met many interesting and talented young people, mostly from the agricultural field but also from the areas of food, forestry, and policymaking. One fruitful discussion was with Francis Kaduki from the Global Africa Youth Dialogue (GAYD). I approached him to compliment him on his speech during an event organised by Kenyan and Irish youth. We recently had a Teams meeting with him and other GAYD members to explore the possibility of establishing an exchange or collaboration with HAFL students/assistants and GAYD.

Célia: During one workshop, Marilena, a project assistant at Welthungerhilfe in Berlin, and I had to develop a project idea to promote plant-based diets. We created a concept, almost jokingly, but ended up convincing ourselves of our idea! It was very nice to see the process and we plan to develop the concept and hopefully bring it to life. Among the topics we’d like to address are local and seasonal recipes, intergenerational dialogue and exchange, rural/urban interactions, and arts. And as the new Swiss representative for Young Professionals for Agricultural Development (YPARD), it was enriching to meet other YPARD members and representatives; firstly, to learn from their experiences, but also to realise the power of YPARD in creating connections and links between young people active in the agricultural fields. I already have many ideas for closer collaborations. Building my network really inspires me, sometimes a bit too much; therefore, I also needed to learn to cluster and prioritise, otherwise I could easily be overwhelmed and squander my energy in too many directions. 

Sucheta: I had the opportunity to connect with individuals leading youth-driven food security initiatives. Collaborating in the realm of sustainable food solutions and nutrition advocacy presents an exciting prospect for future collaborations. I also engaged with entrepreneurs emphasising holistic wellness and diverse dietary approaches. Their comprehensive perspective on well-being resonates with my interests, and I am keen to explore potential partnerships in this area.

What new skills or ideas did you learn that you can use at HAFL?

Micha: Moderation and interactive inputs with QR codes and quizzes.

Sucheta: I gained a deeper understanding of strategic collaboration and innovative problem-solving: essential skills in fostering empowerment and sustainable food solutions. Additionally, I honed my abilities in networking and partnership building, crucial for forging connections with entrepreneurs and organisations at the forefront of holistic wellness and nutrition advocacy. These skills are invaluable assets that I can utilise at HAFL, enriching our approach to education and empowering the next generation of professionals in the fields of food, agriculture, and sustainable nutrition.

Célia: I gained more confidence in my professional role. We are only junior staff, so we had to present ourselves as the representatives of HAFL. What could be a bit scary at first ended up being an incredible opportunity. Over the week, I could see that I approached people with more confidence, and had more confidence in my abilities. We saw many moderation methods and identified the most effective to propose to HAFL colleagues. Also, if this counts as a new “skill”, we developed our team spirit and division of work. We identified the interests and strengths within our small team, and organised how to make the most out of the sessions we could attend. Working as a group and in a group is definitely a skill we could train and improve further. It was a joy working together and gave me even more energy.

Katharina: There are many takeaways, but one specific aspect I loved was a method called PechaKucha. It’s fast storytelling – 20 slides, 20 seconds each. It was used during an event which involved three people presenting innovative agricultural approaches for farmers to adapt to climate change. All the presented ideas had to undergo a reality check conducted by three farmers on stage. These farmers debated the feasibility of the suggested ideas, which was quite insightful.

Were the global concerns of other attendees the same as your own or different? Do you now think differently about a topic after hearing their views?

Sucheta: The global concerns varied, reflecting diverse challenges faced by different regions and communities. Some discussions allowed me to see certain topics, such as community engagement and cultural approaches to agriculture and nutrition, in a new light. Attendees from indigenous groups provided a unique perspective, highlighting the importance of culturally sensitive and inclusive strategies and policies to address food security.

Micha: I saw, and am happy, that we are all aiming, as youth, for more inclusion in research and policy making. It’s sad that there is still a generation that doesn’t consider including youth because of “lack of experience”. HAFL is not like that: here we tend to have more intergenerational collaborations.

Katharina: Climate change, food waste, and concerns regarding the organisation of our agrifood systems to enhance its equity, inclusivity and sustainability were prevalent and persistent discussion topics. A discussion that stood out to me took place during the African Youth Assembly about the barriers farmers face in developing resilient and sustainable agrifood systems. We discussed topics such as the introduction of new crop varieties without sufficient resilience or the issue of resilient crop varieties not aligning with consumer preferences. Additionally, we delved into the problem of input products like pesticides being sold to farmers by European-based (including Switzerland) companies, while the produced goods cannot be exported to Europe due to market restrictions – the pesticides, which are not allowed in the European market, were used! What a plot twist! These discussions highlighted the numerous challenges and issues we need to address worldwide to achieve an equitable, inclusive, and sustainable agrifood system, which we are currently, unfortunately, far away from.

Célia: In general, I have the feeling there were no big gaps in our understanding. However, I can note two moments where I sensed a different perspective. 1. During group work at the European Youth Assembly, there were 10 of us discussing three questions. When I argued that young people can be advocates in their community for a healthier and more sustainable diet, a student in political sciences did not completely agree. He said that we are the “Uber Eats” generation and that many young people don’t care about their food, where it comes from, and why eating healthy is important or relevant, etc. It was good that someone brought me back to these considerations, since I am surrounded by people who are aware and concerned about those topics. 2. One evening there was a debate organised by Proveg International titled “Plant-based vs. livestock: the great food debate.” I was surprised to see that most people were “against” animal production or would like it to be greatly reduced. Coming from Switzerland, a grassland country, I felt that we missed nuances and discussions about site-adapted production. I missed some different perspectives; for example, the need to change intensive cattle fattening but the importance of small ruminants in arid zones. Both are animal production but with a tremendously different context. 

What surprised you about the event?

Katharina: The extent to which the WFF included youth was a bit surprising to me. Well, who am I to judge, right? The FAO launched the event as “The World Food Forum – a youth-led movement and network to transform our agrifood systems – committed to the theme: agrifood systems transformation accelerates climate action.” Personally, I wouldn't call it “youth-led”. Yes, youth were present, but in my opinion, they played more of a side-show role rather than leading the event; for example, the allocated time on the “big” stages given to youth compared to others and the limited interactions between youth and more-experienced participants led me to believe that it wasn't truly youth-led. Nevertheless, I'm still very thankful and appreciative of the efforts made by FAO to include youth. I just think that calling it “youth-led” was perhaps a bit too strong a PR strategy.

Célia: I was most surprised by the opening ceremony, in a good and bad way. I was able to attend it thanks to Genna Tesdall, the director of YPARD. The plenary room itself was impressive, with a beautiful ceiling, but even more so when full of people. This was the positive part: my “novice wonder”. But then I was surprised to see that all the official speakers were men, aged over 50, and two had walking sticks: quite surprising for an event broadly advertised as a “youth-led event, for youth and by youth”. Most of them gave a very formal speech and their allocated time was not restricted. Young people came on stage as “entertaining interludes” – two of them had four minutes to talk (timed on the prompter). I found the whole setting quite ironical. I really missed gender diversity and the perspective of young people, speaking for themselves, and getting space on the stage. 

Micha: That they had a workshop giving youth a voice on actions against food waste.

Sucheta: I was pleasantly surprised by the level of commitment and representation by diverse stakeholders coming together for a common cause and fostering a sense of global unity. The enthusiasm and innovation displayed by the youth projects were truly impressive. Witnessing their passion and dedication, along with the compelling pitches they made to investors, highlighted the incredible potential of the next generation in shaping the future of food security and sustainability. However, what surprised me about the event was the limited emphasis on nutrition-related topics in the sessions and workshops. Given the crucial role of nutrition in global food security, I expected more comprehensive discussions in this area, which I believe is vital for a holistic approach to sustainable agriculture and food systems.

What are your thoughts about FAO and the World Food Forum now?

Katharina: Where to start? The World Food Forum is a massive event that allows people from diverse backgrounds to exchange ideas, experiences, and opinions. The event facilitates inspiring interactions, fruitful discussions, and network expansion, potentially laying the foundation for future collaborations. However, the World Food Forum also includes a fair share of highly formal speeches and presentations, along with panel discussions, where I didn't observe much discussion but rather panellists presenting their careers and well-prepared statements. As for the FAO, it might have grown too big and become more of a political tool influenced by certain interest groups, potentially hindering its ability to address global food security and tackle pressing agricultural challenges effectively.

Sucheta: I gained a deeper understanding of FAO and the event. FAO's dedication to tackling global food challenges was clear from the diverse discussions, creative solutions, and collaborative atmosphere. The World Food Forum highlighted FAO's commitment to meaningful dialogues, sustainable practices, and positive change in food security.

Micha: I’m still deliberating if it was “youth-washing” or not. I do wonder if our workshop findings will make their way up to the hierarchy.

Célia: For me, an institution as large as the FAO is as mysterious as it is prestigious. I also hear murmurings in my work circle and the media, and some are quite critical of FAO. Thanks to our participation in Rome, I think that FAO’s work is necessary and valuable. I see their role as an overarching organisation, responsible for formulating the direction for the sustainable and desirable evolution of the agricultural sector worldwide. However, I do see several issues: 
1. Embody the change we preach: As mentioned in the example of the opening speech, I feel that youth has become a bit like environmental sustainability. We all know “greenwashing” and here I felt some “youth washing”: preaching for youth inclusion and involvement, without giving them the space to speak or to take part in decision-making processes. For me, this is quite frustrating. Feeling used as a marketing argument (“Look, we have young people on stage”) is even more frustrating when you see all the energy, motivation and commitment young people have to offer.  
2. Connect with the grassroots level: In many discussions, I felt a disconnection with the grassroots level. If people spend years in an office and in forums, having high-level discussions, this leads to a certain disconnection with real-world realities. I often miss the part linking the principles, policies, and practice. This might also be reinforced since we come from a university of applied sciences. My conclusion is that we should let those who are concerned by the matter speak, which would mean having more practitioners on board for those meetings. 
3. Ensure accountability and concrete impact: Often it seems that everyone agrees on what should be done, more or less, but there were rarely “next steps” fixed after the sessions. It didn’t feel like there were clear responsibilities or that the matters discussed would be taken further. Maybe this was also not an objective of the event, that is possible, but I have the feeling that this lack of clear responsibility, leading to a lack of accountability, makes all processes very slow and sometimes quite ineffective.

Interview by Angela Wade

Subject area: International agriculture and rural development
Category: International