Inside Our Carbon

Amplifying Youth Voices: The Future of Sustainable Food Systems

04 Jun 2024

By Anusha Jegathesan, Sustainable Data Analyst, Our Carbon

As an intern at NISD (Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development), attending the last Royal Norfolk Show (June 28–29 2023) was a fantastic experience for me. In collaboration with my NISD colleagues, I conducted a qualitative investigation into youth attitudes towards sustainable food systems which i’m excited to share here.

East Anglia’s Critical Role in UK Food Security

East Anglia plays an important role in food security in the UK. The region’s fertile lands and large farms contribute to national food security. But there are often challenges to striking a balance between food production, acceptable yields and environmental sustainability. Applying definitions of sustainability to food production, a sustainable food system (SFS) is one that ensures everyone has access to sufficient safe, nutritious food while maintaining the economic, social, and environmental foundations necessary to provide food security and nutrition for present and future generations (Nguyen, 2018).

This means that a food system which is sustainable not only is environmentally sustainable, but also has long-term financial viability and brings widespread benefits to society.

Youth Vision around Sustainability: A Collage of Ideas

We investigated knowledge around sustainability and sustainable food systems at the Royal Norfolk show last year amongst young people aged 10 – 21.

At the NISD stand, we had an interactive session with our visitors, asking them two questions:

  • What do they want to see in a sustainable future?
  • And what do we need to do to achieve that?

They created a vibrant collage with their comments:

Figure: Youth Ideas for Actions towards a Sustainable Future 1

The responses in the collage can be grouped into several categories, including waste management, eco-friendly transport modes, renewable energy, accessibility to healthy food, and biodiversity. These categories are illustrated in the pie chart below.

Responses from the collage categorised into different themes.

Key Themes from Youth Responses

The majority of young people who came to the stand offered suggestions on reducing food waste as well as rubbish control strategies like recycling and reuse. Nearly 25% said that affordable healthy food should be the norm. They also mentioned that being vegan (eating plant-based diets with no animal products) and avoiding fast food are beneficial dietary choices. Twenty percent of respondents who said they would be interested in supporting environmentally friendly modes of transportation recommended walking, using public transport, and using electric cars. Additional suggestions on how to make food systems more sustainable included references to “fair farming,” “growing your own food,” “composting fruits and vegetables,” and “eating more food produced or grown in the UK.”

In-Depth Youth Interviews: Insights and Reflections

I also had the opportunity to interview 15 young people who visited the NISD stand. Through these interviews, I gained insight into their understanding of sustainability, their involvement and benefits in gardening and food production, and to what extent young people have agency on actions around sustainable food systems and influencing others around them.

Many young people think ‘sustainability’ means any fruits or vegetables. Words like organic, replenishable, green, waste reduction and pesticide control were also tossed into the mix.  Some had interesting reflections around this with comments such as “…how the food is produced. It’s sort of about the ethics behind how the food is produced and how it’s sustainable for the environment. And it’s not about kind of eating less food that is sustainable, it’s about growing the amount of food that is sustainable.” Another mentioned that sustainable food is “Food that lasts longer, better for the planet, grow and use for a long time.” In general, older students showed more awareness about the complexity of sustainability than younger students, who tended to be less familiar with the concept.

Gardening: More Than Just A Hobby

The interviews revealed that most young people’s engagement with food systems occurs at home or through school gardening projects. They also seemed very much enlightened about the good effects gardening has on them, starting from the physical to the wide-scale mental health benefits.

Though there was interest in gardening and growing their own food, 5 out of 15 young people chose not to pursue a future career in the field, a main reason being not being sufficiently compensated for the time invested.

Norfolk Voices for Norfolk Futures: Youth Opinions on a Better Future

The Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association gathered opinions from young people on ideas that would make the future better at the flagship RNAA “Norfolk Voices for Norfolk Futures” event. The responses, grouped into categories such as resource management, waste management, local food systems, biodiversity conservation, and renewable energy, are summarized in the pie chart below.

Figure: Suggestions for Improvements for Norfolk Futures described by young people, grouped by category (Norfolk Voices for Norfolk Futures event, 28 June 2023)

The feedback revealed a strong understanding of sustainability and a desire for locally-sourced, environmentally-responsible food production.

Of the 34 respondents, most said they would want to see resource management improvements including institutional, policy, and educational reforms, as well as training programmes for aspiring farmers and more government assistance. Numerous individuals highlighted the need to educate young people about farming and agriculture.

An equal percentage of respondents desired improved waste management as well as the preservation or enhancement of the region’s natural wilderness and biodiversity. Additionally, the public advocated for “more home produced food – less international import,” which suggested strengthening local and regional food systems. An equal percentage of individuals expressed enthusiasm in seeing additional renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, and hydrogen-powered energy. Some participants also suggested reducing the amount of pesticides used in food production.

Reflections from the Interviews

Overall, the responses show the comprehension of the concepts of sustainability and food security by young people. While knowledge of sustainability varied by age, all participants demonstrated some understanding. Notably, a desire for locally-sourced and environmentally-responsible food production emerged, alongside interest in personal food production through gardening. Young people seem to be more supportive and inclined towards a future with sustainable food systems. They seem to be understanding SFS from an environmental and sustainable standpoint and little from the financial and social equity perspective.

Future of Sustainable Food Systems

Although almost a quarter of them expressed little interest in working in food systems as a source of income, this is consistent with a worldwide trend that also applies to the UK (FarmingUK, 2022). It is essential to boost this passion by including farming and agriculture into the early high school curriculum. Young people seem to be interested in various aspects of a Sustainable Food System (SFS) beyond just production further along in the agricultural chain including transport, waste management and broader environmental impact. This understanding, along with their willingness to change their behaviours, presents a valuable opportunity to develop a more equitable and just food system.

Pathways for Further Research and Recommendations

This small sample size gives a snapshot of some of the ideas around sustainability and food held by UK youth. There is a deficit of study on youth employment options in agriculture and on farms in the UK; more studies are required in this domain, and young people need to be made aware of the potential career paths accessible to them. Even though the UK has apprenticeship programmes in farming and agriculture, new training programmes and initiatives need to be developed especially in East Anglia, and students in schools need to be made aware of their opportunities after graduation.

The Importance of Government Support

The individuals who attended Norfolk Futures voiced that the UK government should increase its present level of assistance for farms and agriculture. Appropriate incentives and assistance would support those who are  finding it difficult to survive the present economic downturn, both food-insecure households and farmers.

It is also necessary to look at the ways in which the authorities might hear people’s voices. These events and discussions hosted at the Royal Norfolk Show last year provide one example of where people can be supported to speak out and share their opinions on the rules, regulations, and procedures around food. Wider opportunities to gather views about the future of sustainable food systems across diverse sectors of the population may provide useful evidence and knowledge inputs for policy makers.


FarmingUK (2022). UK farming faces ‘talent drought’ as young people steer away. Available at: [Accessed on 03.06.2024].

Nguyen, H. (2018). Sustainable food systems: Concept and framework. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Rome, Italy. [Accessed on 30.05.2024].

ONS (2021). Office for National Statistics. Available at: [Accessed on 30.05.2024].

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