“A year from now, you’ll wish you would have started today.”

We often use this phrase as motivation to embark on a change or turning point in life. Today, this is how business leaders need to be thinking about agriculture and the many lives we want and need to impact around the world. We’re all familiar with the great challenges facing agriculture: by 2050, 9 billion people will need to be fed and clothed by our industry. Twenty years from now, we can’t afford to wish we would have done more to impact global food security. It’s a long-term focus on the critical resources we need to invest in today that should drive the future of agricultural development.

To make a lasting impact, we need to place a greater emphasis on our young people. Today, as the global youth population climbs to an historic high of 1.5 billion, countries worldwide are struggling to provide young people with avenues for employment and self-sufficiency. Facing issues of poverty, such as access to basic nutrition, drinkable water, shelter, sanitation, and health care, these young people are turning to 4-H for assistance. At the same time, agricultural development and the critical importance of a strong agriculture economy has re-emerged as a priority in international development aid. According to a new Chicago Council report on youth and agriculture, strong and viable agricultural sectors are essential to turning the tide of poverty.

The 4-H model – which lies at the intersection of positive youth development, agricultural livelihoods, and innovative partnerships – is a critical mechanism for youth and community growth. We must do more to develop the next generation of leaders in agriculture. They hold the greatest opportunity to make a positive impact for generations to come. They have the kind of passion, innovation and leadership needed to drive transformation, but they need our support.

Hands-on learning & skills development: The opportunity hiding in plain sight

Young people are at the core and should be recognized as critical resources needed to increase global economies. Particularly in agriculture, the opportunity for youth development and engagement is hiding in plain sight.

From its origins 4-H has engaged young people as catalysts in this nation’s movement to large-scale agricultural production. Over time it has adapted and expanded to serve the evolving needs of young people in communities around the world. As a demand-driven model, 4-H can immediately improve lives by engaging youth in the global conversation about agriculture and its critical role in economies. And because 4-H is truly global – present in more than 70 countries and counting – this can be done on a massive scale.

This model empowers youth to reach their full potential in partnership with caring adults and benefits society at large by providing young people with the social nutrients to be resilient, creative problem-solvers, even in the most challenging socioeconomic environments. We can empower them to help protect our natural resources and to become more sustainable in their own food production. They can be part of the solution to global food insecurity.

Focused, scaled investments go a long way

Take Naomi and Duncan from Kenya 4-H, for example. When I met these two individuals a couple years ago they described the impact of their 4-H program. Through the training and support of their 4-H program, these young people built and managed a farm at their school. The farm was so successful that they not only raised enough food for the school, they sold the remaining produce and generated enough revenue for the students to take home oil, rice and other food staples to their families. The students also used proceeds from their farm to build a dormitory for AIDS orphans. It was clear we need to do more to expand this model to more communities in Africa and around the world.

Through 4-H, these students gained knowledge and tangible skills to lead positive solutions in their community. They also gained a sense of pride in their accomplishments and a sense of hope to stay in their communities.

This is just one example of the many successful programs utilizing the 4-H model. Other successful 4-H programs also exist in places like Ghana, Tanzania, Honduras, Belize, China, Vietnam, Afghanistan and many other parts of the world.

A way forward to build the future

We need to support a new generation of leaders to support the growth of global communities. To do this, youth development should be considered as part of every foundation, corporate or government strategy to increase global food security.

Around the world, 4-H has been proven effective in promoting agricultural and economic development. It’s a model that’s already proven successful – but requires collective support to meet the needs of our growing and hungry world. Investing in youth development can go a long way toward meaningful solutions. Together, we can take steps now that we’ll thank ourselves for 20 years down the road.

About the author: Jennifer Sirangelo is president and CEO of the National 4-H Council