Is food and agriculture missing from the political debate at COP26?

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

Should world leaders pay more heed to the need for food system transformation? / Pic: GettyImages-Bobex-73
Should world leaders pay more heed to the need for food system transformation? / Pic: GettyImages-Bobex-73

Related tags: COP26, Sustainability, Climate change, Methane, deforestation

Food and agriculture are central to meeting climate goals. Has the industry been left off the agenda at COP26?

When it comes to combatting climate change, the focus tends to be placed on developing clean energy solutions. Indeed, energy is by far the largest single contributor to GHG emissions, accounting for around 76% of the total. Rightly, energy – alongside the financial instruments that support current production systems – has been a focal point of the COP26 agenda.

But there is a growing consensus that, to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and limit global warming to 1.5°C, food system transformation is also a priority.

Food production is a big contributor to global warning. The food system is linked to 35% of total manmade greenhouse gas emissions, according to one study published last month​. And it isn’t just how we make food that’s the problem. How we consume it need to change too. If food waste was a country, for instance, it would be the third largest emitter in the world behind only the USA and China.

Food producers are on the front line of climate change. Extreme weather, swings in precipitation patterns and changes in temperature are felt by farming communities around the world, negatively impacting yields and livelihoods.

At the same time, evidence is mounting that food production can be part of the climate fix. Regenerative agricultural practices, for instance, have been hailed as an important tool to sequester carbon in the earth and replenish degraded soils.

GettyImages-jchizhe soil plant regenerative
Food production is the villain and victim of climate change, could it also be the hero? / Pic: GettyImages-jchizhe

Coming off the back of the first UN Food Systems Summit, which was staged just one month ahead of COP26, one might have expected the discussion around food system transformation to continue its momentum as world leaders meet to discuss the climate crisis in Glasgow. To a large extent, this does not appear to have been the case.

Ruth Richardson, Executive Director, Global Alliance for the Future of Food has urged governments to put food systems transformation at the heart of climate action or risk undermining their own commitments. “We’re still not seeing food high enough on the political agenda,”​ she suggested.

The strategic alliance of philanthropic organisations has been examining the Nationally Determined Contribution plans that are submitted by countries to roadmap their climate action. The organisation has assessed eight out of the 14 NDC’s submitted ahead of COP26 and it found none ‘fully account’ for emissions associated with food imports, particularly those related to deforestation. Only Germany commits to promote sustainable food production and consumption, and just Colombia and Kenya have put forward ‘ambitious measures’ around agroecology and regenerative agriculture.

“Action on food that is critical to restoring planetary health, radically reducing carbon emissions, protecting nature and biodiversity, and also to delivering on goals like gender empowerment, workers’ rights, and access to healthy and nutritious diets for all. Any commitments negotiated that lack a systemic and global approach to food systems transformation will simply be inadequate given the vast mitigation and adaptation potential that the sector holds,”​ Richardson argued.

Transitioning agriculture to harness mitigation potential

GettyImages-frostyy1108 wheat field
A consistent policy approach is needed to transition agriculture to net zero / Pic: GettyImages-frostyy1108

Copa and Cogeca, the umbrella organization representing European farmers, is also calling for a more concerted political effort to promote mitigation efforts in food production. The farmer lobby lamented that it ‘wishes there would have been a greater focus’ on agriculture and forestry as part of the COP26 negotiations.

“We are committed to the implementation of the Paris Agreement and its goals, otherwise unachievable without the full involvement of agriculture and forestry sectors. No other sectors in Europe will be able to remove emissions from the atmosphere naturally. To deliver our full potential we need both consistent policies and general public support,”​ Christiane Lambert, Copa President, commented.

According to Copa and Cogeca, the best way to achieve further reductions in agricultural emissions, without putting downward pressure on production and food security, is to incentivise mitigation practices at national, regional, and global level.

Government agricultural subsidies are also important an piece of the puzzle. A recent UN report, jointly released by the UNEP, UNDP and FAO​, paints a damning picture of the detrimental effect current agricultural support systems have on the sustainability of the food system. It concluded support is biased towards ‘measures that are harmful and unsustainable for nature, climate, nutrition and health’, while disadvantaging women and other smallholder farmers in the sector.

“By repurposing agricultural producer support, governments can optimize scarce public resources to support food systems in ways that make them not only more efficient, but also more supportive of healthy lives, nature and climate. This can also be an opportunity to achieve a strong economic recovery in a post-COVID-19 pandemic world,”​ the report’s authors suggested.

Animal agriculture and plant-based diets

GettyImages-Ben-Schonewille cattle cows
Should policy support move towards plant-based diets? / Pic: GettyImages-Ben-Schonewille

The UN report noted that 90% of subsidy payments promote ‘harmful' activities. Beef and dairy receive the highest level of financial support, while the distortion of import tariffs and price incentives for certain livestock encourage people in richer countries to eat more meat, it suggested.

Meat and dairy products, including the crops grown to feed livestock and pastures for grazing, contribute 57% of emissions linked to the food system, carbon mapping research suggests​. Raising plant-based foods for human consumption contributes 29%, with the remaining 14% linked to products not used as food or feed, such as cotton and rubber.

This footprint means animal production has proven particularly controversial on the outskirts of COP26, where proponents of a more plant-based diet have accused policy makers of ignoring the issue and protecting the status quo.

The Vegetarian Butcher, a plant-based brand owned by Unilever, launched a campaign to highlight what it described as ‘the elephant in the room’ in a bid to bring the issue of meat consumption to COP26’s attention.

“During COP26, The Vegetarian Butcher is urging world leaders to acknowledge the elephant in the room: the environmental impact of animal meat consumption on the planet. It is said that COP26 is ‘our last hope’ at limiting global warming to 1.5C but with the issue appearing absent from the COP26 agenda and lacking from European policy, we are calling on policymakers to embed the acceleration of the plant-based transition into national action plans. The impact of animal meat on the planet is so big (GHG emissions, land use and water use), that you can’t just ignore it,”​ a spokesperson for the brand told FoodNavigator.

But while there is broad agreement that animal agriculture needs to address its carbon impact, the food industry and scientific community are not all aligned around the idea that the future is vegan. 

“The idea that we can take meat out of our diets represents a much-oversimplified understanding of the highly complex nature of the global food system,”​​ Peer Ederer, Program & Science Director at Global Food & Agribusiness Network, told FoodNavigator at our recent Climate Smart Food event.

Brent Loken, Global Food Lead Scientist at WWF Global Science, believes that there is a place for meat and dairy in our diets – it is just a question of striking the right balance. Prior to WWF, Loken was co-author of the EAT-Lancet report that outlined the principles of a 'planetary diet'.

“We need to rebalance the global consumption of meat and dairy to get to a level that the earth can tolerate,”​​ he said. “The latest IPCC report made it clear that methane is the dark horse, and reducing these emissions will really buy us some time to be able to decarbonise other sectors. And that comes directly back to red meat consumption.​​”

Methane commitment a missed opportunity? 

Curbing methane emissions has been one of the headline pledges to come out of this year’s high-level meetings. In a move spearheaded by the US and EU, more than 90 countries said they would cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

Methane is one of the most potent GHGs, with a more significant short-term impact on global heading than carbon dioxide. It is emitted by oil and natural gas operations as well as landfill and animal agriculture.

However, again it would seem that reform of the food industry has been left of the menu. According to FAIRR Initiative - a $45 trillion investor network focusing on ESG risks in the global food sector - the pledge concentrates on the reduction opportunity in the energy sector at the expense of critiquing the food industry’s impact.

“There will be concern in the markets that much of the focus for these cuts seem to be on the energy sector, rather than putting forward specific plans to tackle methane emissions from animal agriculture – which is the second largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels,”​ said FAIRR policy director Helena Wright.

"Investors representing over $6.4 trillion AUM have called on nations to commit to specific targets for reducing agricultural emissions within their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). While today’s commitment is welcome, we still need a clear roadmap for the agriculture and land use sector if we are to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees."

Halting commodities-driven deforestation

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Will the deforestation commitment make any difference? / Pic: GettyImages - Miroslav 1

If there has been little political will to address the impact of animal agriculture or support a shift towards plant-based diets, deforestation would appear to be a topic that is easier to find consensus on.

The COP26 World Leaders Summit Action on Forests and Land Use saw over 100 leaders, accounting for more than 86% of the world’s forests, commit to working together to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.

Trading in agricultural commodities and the impact the food sector has on deforestation was directly addressed when 28 governments, representing 75% of global trade in key commodities that can threaten forests, signed up to a new Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade (FACT) Statement. This statement is part of a Roadmap of actions designed to deliver sustainable trade and reduce pressure on forests, including support for smallholder farmers and improving the transparency of supply chains.

The food industry has also promised to act. Ten of the world’s largest agricultural trading companies have said they will publish a roadmap on how to align their supply chains with the 1.5 target by this time next year.

The companies, including Cargill, ADM, Olam International, JBS, Wilmar and Amaggi, detailed their commitment to enhanced supply chain action ahead of COP27, stating that they would provide increased transparency on their Scope 3 emissions and the climate impact of their indirect supply chains.

However, civil society representatives pointed out that previous ambitions to end deforestation have failed to materialise into change on the ground. Notably, the UN’s New York Declaration on Forests saw commitments to stamp out deforestation by 2020, a deadline that has come and gone.

“If global leaders are serious about stopping forest destruction then they must back up today’s announcements with a commitment to bring in strong and binding national legislation that makes it illegal for companies and financial institutions to fuel deforestation,”​ Jo Blackman, Head of Forests Policy and Advocacy at Global Witness, commented.

“Previous commitments by governments, companies and banks have all failed to stop deforestation and it remains to be seen if and how today’s new pledges will be different.”

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