Inaction on the crucial climate issue of food production at COP 26 ought to be as unthinkable as inaction on energy, transport or other big carbon emitters – but unless attitudes change, it’s exactly what we’ll get.
That was the stark warning yesterday from Chantal Wei-Ying Clément, deputy director of the International Panel on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).
Clément was speaking at Good COP, Bad COP: What would a good COP26 look like for agriculture and food, a discussion organised jointly by the Food Ethics Council, Impact Hub King’s Cross, Organico and London Food Link, where she was joined by Patrick Holden, founder of the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT), and discussion chair, Dan Crossley, executive director at the Food Ethics Council.
Missing in inaction
Clément said that, while COP 26 (1-12 November, Glagow) presented a critical opportunity to reset food and farming systems – turning them from being a major climate problem (currently contributing up to a third of greenhouse gas emissions) to part of the solution – the subject was “noticeably absent” from the Glasgow programme as it stands.
“The industrial logic that is driving today’s dominant food systems is also driving food systems’ contribution to climate change”
“We know we’re not just facing a climate crisis, we are facing a biodiversity crisis, a health crisis and a social crisis, and that all these things are closely interlinked. We know that food systems are a large part of the problem, but that they can also be a large part of the solution. And we know that the industrial logic that is driving today’s dominant food systems is also driving food systems’ contribution to climate change.
“We know, for example, that food systems are responsible for nearly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. And we have seen the way the pandemic has exposed the major fragility of the systems – from the long, complex, opaque value chains, to the impact of habitat loss and rising food insecurity.”
Where are the discussions about food?
Despite all this, and other compelling ‘knowns’ – for example, the UN Environment Programme’s warning last year that countries need to reduce their emissions fivefold from where they are now, to keep global warming to +1.5 ºC – there is little serious discussion about the crucial role of food systems, Clément said.
“We would consider it completely unthinkable at COP not to be talking about energy, or transport, or other big emitting sectors. Being inactive about food systems should be equally unthinkable.”
Opportunity to make history
Patrick Holden set out his vision for what COP 26 could be. The UK presidency, he said, had the potential to be “a piece of history”, where world leaders recognised the power of farming and food – “not only by cutting emissions, from the current third to a lot less than that, but also to sequester CO2 out of the atmosphere by harnessing the unique capacity of farming and food systems to take CO2 and put it back into the world’s second largest carbon bank, the soil.”
A ‘COP for food’ he said “would be the foundation, and within that would be a commitment to enable farmers to be more profitable if they switch to regenerative, agro-ecological, organic, and sustainable food systems”. And there would be recognition that “we are at the end of the extractive period of farming … and need to move into the regenerative period where we re-sequest the CO2 that has been stripped out of the soil because we have been plundering nature’s bank and depleting its balance sheet.”
New language for sustainable farming needed
Holden said there was now an urgent need for “a new international language for recording farm sustainability”, adding that “you can’t can’t manage the change we need without measuring the impacts” (he highlighted the issue of net zero carbon, which he said “everybody is talking about at the moment – but with with lots of different measurements as to how to get there”). He hoped that work that SFT has been doing in this area – notably, development of its Global Farm Metric, a new framework for farming – would create “a common language and be a catalyst in building a global coalition around this idea of measuring the impacts of farming systems”.
“We need to move away from narrow, grubby trade agreements such as the one we’ve just done with Australia … and create a new framework that would only permit tariff free trade with products from sustainable, regenerative, organic farming, while farming systems that cause damage – environmental or public health – should be hit with trade tariffs”
Just as important as creating a language and system that would allow progress to be meaningfully measured anywhere in the world, large or small, was the need to reframe trade deals so that they reward sustainable practices. “We need to move away from narrow, grubby trade agreements such as the one we’ve just done with Australia … and create a new framework that would only permit tariff free trade for products from sustainable, regenerative, organic farming, while farming systems that cause damage – environmental or public health – should be hit with trade tariffs … to ensure that any farmer that moves towards truly sustainable food production is not disadvantaged through international trade.”
“In this way, COP 26 could be a historic moment, when we agree this new globalised trade agreement … and what a wonderful piece of history that would be.”
Holden also gave his view on the increasingly contested issue of the ‘sustainable diet’: “This is a really important issue, because everybody is asking the question ‘what do we need to do to eat a healthy, sustainable diet?’. My answer to this is that we should eat the food and products of the country where we live, once they switch to sustainable, regenerative and organic farming.”
He took issue with the current “scientific orthodoxy” advocating a move to a predominantly plant based diet. “I think the focus on moving towards a plant based diet is far too binary. When we are talking about what we should eat in the future, we should give as much attention to the sustainability of plant systems as livestock systems. It is illogical to talk about plants as if they were good, and livestock as if they were bad. We should differentiate between the good and bad in both plants and animals, and eat accordingly.”
Holden closed with comments on the ‘land sparing, land sharing’ debate. He said: “We think the Climate Change Committee of the IPCC and all the people in that community have got it pretty fundamentally wrong on their strategy for UK agriculture. We think that the fact that they have allowed for no carbon sequestration, and their adoption of an essentially land sparing approach, rather than a land sharing approach, is ridiculous”.
‘Good COP, Bad COP: What would a good COP26 look like for agriculture and food’ forms part of the Food Talks series organised by Impact Hub King’s Cross, the Food Ethics Council, Organico and London Food Link (part of Sustain).