The urgent need to make global food systems sustainable was barely discussed at COP 26, a reticence that bewilders experts who stress the challenges involved in changing how the world farms—from dismantling a subsidy system nearly synonymous with ecocide, to ensuring a just transition for agricultural workers.
“Farming is a complex issue on the journey to net-zero, as it is both a source and sink for emissions,” writes The Guardian. While current agricultural land use practices, and food choices, contribute a mammoth 20-25% to annual global emissions, the paper adds, the right modifications could lead to “huge amounts of carbon” being sequestered.
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Job #1 for agriculture reformers will be the current subsidy regime. The Guardian cites a recent UN report which found that “almost 90% of the US$540 billion of global agricultural subsidies given to farmers destroy nature and fuel the climate crisis,” encouraging farmers to maximize output at the expense of wildlife habitats. The scant mention of these subsidies at COP 26 squares poorly with the report’s evaluation that redeploying subsidies to align with ecosystem health could be a “game changer”.
On the bright side, governments—including some big agricultural emitters—did endorse an agriculture policy action agenda at the COP, “signalling their intent to shift agricultural subsidies to better support climate and nature-friendly farming,” writes The Guardian.
Another stumbling block to building a sustainable food system: human dietary preferences.
60% of the food served at the COP 26 canteen contained meat or dairy, notes The Guardian, adding that the activist group Animal Rebellion likened this menu to “‘serving cigarettes at a lung cancer conference’.”
Tellingly, none of the four U.K. farming union leaders at COP 26 believe livestock numbers need to be reduced, nor that people need to cut back on their meat consumption, writes The Guardian. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said new technologies to capture methane will ensure Americans can keep on eating their beloved hamburgers.
And then there is the matter of how to ensure that small farmers don’t bear the brunt of a food-system overhaul.
“There cannot be a one size fits all,” Ishmael Sunga, CEO of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU), told The Guardian, urging plant-based diet proponents to remember that hundreds of millions of livestock farmers will need critical support in any such transition. “We know most of the farmers in developing countries are near-destitute,” Sunga said, pointing to the irony of a multi-billion-dollar food industry that “delivers so badly for farmers.”
“They go hungry, they absorb the climate front-risk, while the rest of us carry on walking around smiling,” Sunga said.
One major agricultural announcement at the summit was a US$4-billion agricultural innovation partnership unveiled by the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates. Activists saw it as “an attempt to reframe destructive intensive farming as part of the climate solution, instead of the problem,” writes The Guardian.
“The U.S. and the UAE are presenting a vision for the future of farming that is a future without farmers,” said Tom Wakeford, an ecologist and action researcher at Montreal-based ETC Group, flagging the subsidy as a source of worry for those advocating a truly ecological and just agricultural revolution.
“Such a form of agriculture is a dangerous fantasy,” he added.
Sunga said the otherwise conspicuous absence of farming at the COP 26 negotiating table was “baffling.”
“By focusing on other areas and not focusing on food and agriculture, you are running away from the problem, and that’s where solutions with the greatest impact are going to be,” he said.