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Travel as much as you can, and when you travel, get farming!

Emile in Morocco“Discover yourself - but start by discovering the world!”

That’s a rough translation of a certain university’s favorite slogan. You can spot it all around campus, plastered on vans, banners and even Christmas tree decorations, yet despite it being thrust in our faces every day, no-one knows what exactly is meant by it.

Unleash your inner super-researcher?

Go on a bunch of Erasmus exchanges and party from dawn until dusk every day?

...or simply leave your lab, office or dorm room every now and then for a breath of fresh air and a look at the world around you?

There are dozens of different interpretations; in fact almost anyone who wants to inspire people for almost anything related to aforementioned university uses this slogan.

So how about we make the slogan follow its own philosophy, and allow the words to discover themselves by throwing them out into the world?

Yes, you guessed it! This is where agriculture enters the story.

What if we were to replace the word “yourself” with “agriculture”? We’d end up with a statement no less grand, though perhaps even more in need of an explanation. Discover yourself some agriculture, amigo – but start by discovering the world! I can imagine that firing up my imagination, especially because in my mind it’s being said by a wise old Andean quinoa farmer wearing a mighty fine poncho. But what the heck does it mean?

I live in Belgium, a comfortable little country where the vast majority of people doesn’t have too much of a clue of how their food is produced. Supermarkets are where we buy almost all of our food, and farmers are seen more as unfortunate individuals in a steadily dying sector than noble heroes striving to feed the nation. The idea of a seasonal struggle to squeeze a harvest out of the land seems like something outdated, something that people might have worried about a long time ago.

Add to that the not-in-my-backyardness of many small farmers’ problems (what with most small farmers being far away in developing nations), and I’d say we have got ourselves a fairly formidable barrier. I’m talking about the barrier between the teenager from a developed country, moodily stabbing a fork at the green beans on his or her plate, and the smallholder from a developing country who spent weeks if not months painstakingly pruning, watering and picking those same beans, knowing his livelihood depends on how well he prunes, waters, or picks (okay, I know there’s more to farming than that, but I’m going for some poetic effect here. Bear with me until the end of my story and then you can bash me as much as you want in the comments section ;) ).

 It seems our question is: how can we, people in both the developing and developed world, break this barrier? How could we young people get more involved with where our food comes from, and how can farmers encourage and benefit from this involvement?

Crowd-sourcing? Social media-driven coalitions? A world government?

I can’t say whether any or all of those might one day be a miracle pill for the world’s problems, but I have an idea that I find worth considering.

It’s actually a bit of a no-brainer, and it came to me while I was backpacking around the High Atlas mountains in Morocco. I was amazed by two things: First of all, the ability of local farmers to build gravity-defying terraces onto steep hillsides, just to eke a few bushels of wheat out of the stony soil.  Secondly, the locals were so incredibly hospitable, offering us tea and a welcome, genuinely friendly respite from the almost non-stop commercial assault we had received in the markets of nearby Marrakesh.

Continuing into the nearby Vallée d’Ounila, a beautifully rustic string of oases kept alive by a tiny trickle of water and an impressive irrigation network, we kept coming face to face with more marvels of local agriculture and hospitality.

Why not get more young people to have the same experience? There are already existing concepts, such as agri-tourism, or woofing, that bring adventurous travelers slap bang into the middle of farm life. Imagine if farming holidays came to replace the all-in hotel experience? And why limit this to young people? What about getting your lonely grandfather away from his perch in front of the television, to press some artisanal olive oil?

I am just spitballing here, but I can say that all the farmers we met in Morocco were genuinely pleased to explain their carpet-weaving techniques, show us edible plants in their vegetable gardens or to let us taste that glorious olive oil (yup, worth mentioning twice!).

What would I advise young people? Travel as much as you can, and when you travel, find yourself some farmers – they’ll provide you with a stupendously authentic experience of the place you’re visiting, as well as blowing open your perception of where our food comes from. Seeing the dry river beds and bare, salt-encrusted fields, my heart went out to these people, so dependent on the capricious yearly rains, and so far removed from the apparent security of the supermarket shelves...

Appreciating what farmers in developing nations go through every day, month or year is of vital importance for citizens of developed countries, since what we do in the future will depend on our perception of the world and its various different peoples, cultures and yes, agro-systems...and will have a great impact on them. We might never have to endure their struggle or live their lives, but they, just like the Kenyan bean farmer, are part of our crazy, globalized food web.

When a Belgian beet farmer can understand the impact he’s having on his Brazilian viniculturist friend, or a Moroccan goat herder can tell a Cuban professor about erosion on his grazing grounds, well, people, we might stand a chance of fighting world hunger while making sure no one is left behind!

I am a student currently majoring in Agro- and Ecosystems Engineering, and am greatly interested in intercultural exchange, being a product of a Belgian mother and an Asian-American father, and having visited and lived in places as diverse as the Netherlands, Brazil, and Ethiopia. I also believe in food, agriculture, art and storytelling, social media and other emerging technologies, as vehicles for greater understanding and cooperation between the myriad people of the world.

This blog post is part of the GCARD3 Youth blogpost applications. The content, structure and grammar is at the discretion of the author only.