Young people worry about food waste: ‘It’s time for action’

‘Young people are willing enough to pay more for organic produce,’ the Dutch UN Youth Representatives Evi Vet and Eva Koffeman conclude from the interviews they’re doing on food and biodiversity. What message will they send from young people at the UN Food Systems Summit?

Eva Koffeman
UN Youth Representative Eva Koffeman

How are you finding out what young people think about major issues like food and biodiversity?

Eva: ‘We’re organising online interviews with young people from a range of organisations. These interactive talks start from a set of propositions on biodiversity, soil quality and the future of fruit and vegetables. We’re also leading talks at events, like a hackathon where young people from around the world try to crack the food system.’

That puts you in touch with young people who already care about the issue. How do you find out what the rest of them think?

Evi: ‘That’s a real challenge. Usually we’re invited to give lessons at secondary schools, but coronavirus has made that harder. We have given online lessons, though, and we’ve been working with pupils on their projects.’

Eva: ‘We’ve joined with other Dutch UN Youth Representatives who are working on other issues to set up an online youth panel. In this way we’ll do surveys of hundreds of young people on a monthly basis.’

What issues are Dutch young people involved with?

Evi: ‘Food waste is a good example. For many other issues you need government and business to do something, but this is a practical problem that young people can tackle themselves.’

Eva: ‘Dutch young people realise that their food choices have an impact on climate and biodiversity. I just wrote my master’s thesis on consumers’ willingness to pay for animal welfare. I found out that the older consumers are, the less willing they are to pay for organic produce. Young people between 18 and 25 are the most willing to pay more, even though this is the group with the least buying power. Young people are also willing to eat fewer animal products, and see oat milk as an alternative to cow’s milk.’

How different is Dutch young people’s experience of the world from that of young people in other countries?

Eva: ‘Dutch young people have a privileged position. We can afford to worry about issues like our ecological footprint. Naturally it’s a different story for young people who have to hope that the harvest doesn’t fail, and who are glad just because they have something to eat.’

Evi: ‘If you live somewhere where you only have five products to choose from, you’re not in a position to eliminate animal products from your diet. In Western countries we have enough alternatives.’

What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the world?

Eva: ‘There’s enough food in the world, but it’s unequally divided. An estimated billion people worldwide suffer from hunger or malnutrition, while more than a third of the world’s population is overweight or obese. Moreover, current food production has a negative impact on biodiversity, water and greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, climate change is having a negative impact on agriculture. Drought, heat and floods are devastating harvests for vulnerable people.’

Evi: ‘The challenge is to make our food system more sustainable, more equitable and more accessible for everyone. The UN Food Systems Summit is looking in a holistic way at food production, consumption and distribution patterns. This is so comprehensive that everyone is needed to change the system: governments, farmers and companies as well as consumers.’

Evi Vet
UN Youth Representative Evi Vet

What has to change?

Evi: ‘We’ve spoken to young farmers about this. They would like to change, but they think the risks of investing in emissions reductions or of switching to an environmentally friendly business model are too great. Government should impose rules requiring this, and at the same time reward organic farmers.’

Eva: ‘Government could reward better consumer behaviour through its pricing policy. For example by taxing meat and making organic products less expensive.’

What kind of message do you want to send from young people at the Food Systems Summit?

Evi: ‘Young people all around the world are worried about the amount of food that’s being wasted. In the Netherlands, food waste reflects an excess of food. In other countries it’s mainly a storage and distribution problem; food spoils before it reaches consumers. We really have to find solutions for this.’

What results would make you satisfied?

Eva: ‘If many different ideas are shared at the summit and there’s a final report that’s full of creative solutions, followed up by practical steps.’   
Evi: ‘People have talked an awful lot for a very long time. Now it’s time for action.’   

What can Dutch consumers start doing right now?

Eva: ‘Eat less meat. One portion of meat is the equivalent of seven portions of soya. All the food you feed to a cow could also be used directly to feed people. So cattle feed is another form of food waste. Soya has a bad reputation because of deforestation for soya cultivation, which leads to species extinction – but that soya is mainly grown to be processed for animal feed. So eating tofu is really better than eating meat!’

Evi: ‘Pay attention to the number of different kinds of plant-based products you eat each week. Don’t just count fruits and vegetables, but also herbs, nuts and seeds. On average people only eat 14 different species of plants. They could really eat more than that! So people should expand their diets. That’s not only good for biodiversity; healthy nutrition also contributes to physical and mental health.’