The University of Leuven is involved in SUFISA and Newbie, both H2020 projects that deal with farming. For SUFISA, the focus is on sustainable finances and institutional arrangements of farmers while Newbie has new entrants in farming as its primary focus. It leaves no doubt that for both these project a close cooperation with farmers is necessary. These projects are a process of mutual learning. However, the ambition of SUFISA and Newbie goes beyond reaching out to farmers, their advisors, policy makers and academics. Farming affects all European citizens, and dealing with the future of farming in Europe, it is obvious that youngsters also should be considered as an important audience.
The debate on the future of farming has been integrated in our field visits with students of the Faculty of Applied Biological Sciences, with farming (plant production, animal production or bio-economy) as their specialization. While our students are trained to be specialists in their fields, discussions during seminars and field visits demonstrate that very few students are willing or ready to take over or start a farm. They fear the risk of entrepreneurship in an insecure environment, with volatile prices, high investment costs and long working days. Furthermore, they are aware of the strict legislation that a farmer needs to follow, especially in terms of food safety and food security measures. Field visits with our students are crucial to bridge the gap between theory and practice. We experience that especially visits to younger farmers inspires them and opens their eyes for the challenges of farmers.
We don’t only go into dialogue with students, but also go to classrooms at schools. On the 26th of November, we organized a workshop with 17-year old pupils at De Ring, a secondary school in Leuven. The workshop starts with an overall picture of food and farming. How much land is used globally for farming? What is the average age of a farmer in Flanders? Can we feed the world? Why is there still hunger? What is GMO? (the young audience was convinced that GMO was mainly applied on vegetables, such a carrots and apples). And, what does it take to become a farmer?
Not surprisingly, none of the pupils live on a farm, though some have grand parents that used to farm. At the same time, we notice that there is a lot of willingness to learn about food and farming. Youngsters are concerned about what they eat and where it comes from. They like cooking and appreciate local food, fresh from the garden or from the farmer in the neighborhood. One of the girls in the classroom even formulates the ambition to become a farmer one day herself. Together with class mates, we discuss all the skills and knowledge she needs to make that dream come true. ‘Big’ topics pass the revue, such as access to land, and the skills needed to work with high tech machinery in farming.
Talking about food and farming with youngsters should be inherent to European projects that aim to contribute to food security in the broad sense. It is much more than just a fun side activity. An honest dialogue with young people all across Europe will help us to translate outcomes of research and multi-actor projects into tools that support the next generation to face the current and upcoming challenges of Europe.