Emily Meredith
Emily Meredith

The millennial generation is concerned about “causes” and one of their favorites is having a sustainable environment.

Last week, the Clinton Global Initiative, in conjunction with Microsoft, released the results of a poll aimed to identify millennials’ top priorities. The release of the poll results coincided with the Clinton Global Initiative University conference at Arizona State University, where students from across the country gathered to focus on global issues, including climate change, education and food security. 

According to the poll, millennials say they are more focused on the environment than their parents’ generation, 76% to 24%. More than 66% of millennials say there is “solid evidence” the earth is getting warmer, and 75% of those respondents say human activity is responsible for it.

Yet, millennials are unsure if they can solve the problem of climate change, according to the poll. Fifty-four percent of millennials feel they’ll make a significant contribution to better the environment, while 56% believe they’ll actually worsen the earth’s condition in their lifetimes. Respondents were also divided on the best route to address global warming: half said governments and political action, and half said individuals can best combat it on their own.

But—most crucially—more than two-thirds of respondents said they are willing to pay more for products from sustainability-focused companies.

While some feel that the so-called “selfie” generation deserves a pat on the back for their efforts to take the bull by the horns and try and improve the earth’s condition—I know it just about gives those of us in agriculture a heart attack. Not because we in ag don’t want to see a more sustainable food system, one that constantly evolves and changes to meet the next set of environmental challenges, but because there’s no “one sustainability fits all.”

Sustainability is a word that lacks definition, or rather, lacks one definition.

I, like many in agriculture, define sustainability as a journey, rather than a destination. Sustainability is a means to constantly improve upon age-old traditions of environmental stewardship. I think of our American farmers and ranchers as the original recyclers—as those who look to pass on their land to the next generation in a better condition than when they themselves inherited it.

But as skepticism for corporations and government grows, consumers—and millennials in particular—become less and less confident that we in agriculture are doing the right thing when it comes to the environment.

So how do we engage with those millennials concerned about the environment; those who subscribe to the “socially responsible food movement?”

At the Alliance’s Stakeholders Summit in May, themed “Cracking the Millennial Code,” we’ll have a panel of college students from The George Washington University who will be discussing their relationship with food, as millennials. Everything from what they look for in the grocery store, to their cafeteria preferences—to yes, even how they get “the deets” (details) about farming and food production.

In preparation for this panel, I met with the four students who will be speaking at Summit late last week in GW’s new Office of Sustainability. Yes it’s true—GW has a whole office dedicated to sustainability.

You may be thinking: it’s no surprise that a “liberal,” East Coast school would have such an office—but it’s not the only one. In fact, this panel at the Alliance’s Stakeholders Summit will be moderated by a representative from Sodexo, the largest food-service provider in the U.S. and they work with countless schools nationwide to adopt more sustainable cafeteria practices.

What concerns me isn’t the desire of the GW’s and Sodexo’s of the world (and the millennials too!) to try and become more sustainable, but more, the definition of “sustainable” as it applies to meat, milk and eggs.  

As with most things, we in agriculture haven’t done the best job of highlighting all of our efforts—both collectively and individually—to practice good environmental stewardship and to improve the environmental footprint of agriculture.

But more than that—we haven’t defined our “benchmarks” for sustainability—and how we achieve those goals. Without properly and concretely defining those goals, we’re leaving the door wide open for corporations, activist groups or even the government to define what sustainability means for our industry.

I’ve written before that millennials are a generation marked by indecision, a generation famous for saying one thing and doing another. Yet—time and time again, survey after survey, millennials are found to care about “causes” more than any previous generation.

And one cause that’s clearly important is the environment. I can’t wait for our Summit audience to hear what these highly intelligent, passionate individuals have to say about all things food.

I know I walked out of my meeting last week, inspired—but also thinking, “wow—we must do more outreach on college campuses.” We must work harder to bridge the gap; we must be more present at discussions about hot issues—including sustainability—that are happening on college quads nationwide.

I’ve already agreed to do my part, I’ve accepted an invitation to speak at the Feeding the Planet Summit here in D.C. this summer.

How will you do your part?

Don’t miss the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s Stakeholders Summit coming up this May 8-9, 2014 in Crystal City, Va. There’s still time to register at the Early Bird Rate, so don’t miss out! To Register, visit: www.animalagalliance.org/Summit.