15 Nov, 2021

COP26: a lost opportunity for a revolution in food systems?

by Alessandro Balduzzi

The United Nations Climate Change Conference - better known as COP26 - has been heavily criticized because of its limited results, consisting more of pledges than of concrete engagements. Notably, several pundits and observers stressed that food systems were far from playing a pivotal role both during the negotiations and in the final deal called “Glasgow Climate Pact”. 

From October 31st to November 12th, the biggest Scottish city hosted an event whose focus on climate change did not seem to take into due account the fact that agriculture and food are responsible for between 30 and 40 percent of human-caused greenhouse emissions. Still, when it comes to combating climate change, the focus tends to be placed only on developing clean energy solutions. 

The Paris Agreement was adopted by 196 Parties at COP21 in Paris, on 12 December 2015, and set as its main goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Food systems play a fundamental role in fulfilling this objective, not only in terms of food production but also of food transformation and consumption - whose other side of the coin is food waste (if it were a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world behind only the US and China).

Food and beverage companies are the main actors needing to be aware of the role they can play, both positively and negatively. As a matter of fact, they can either support governments and society in mitigating global warming or ignoring their social responsibility becoming part of the problem they could help solve. At the end of the day, food producers are on the front line when it comes to climate change. Extreme weather and changes in temperature severely affect farming communities all over the world. Copa and Cogeca, the umbrella organization representing European farmers, called for a more concerted political effort to promote mitigation in food production. 

This could possibly involve an increase in subsidies. Still, 90 percent of subsidy payments promote “harmful” activities, according to the UN. The latter noted that beef and dairy receive the highest level of financial support, encouraging people in richer countries to eat more and more meat. In this regard, COP26 experienced the juxtaposition between supporters of a plant-based diet - accusing policy makers of protecting the status quo - and those more skeptical about a “vegan future” whilst not rejecting the fact that animal agriculture leads to massive carbon impact. 

Strictly connected with decarbonisation (methane is responsible for about 30 per cent of global warming to date), curbing methane emissions has numbered among the main pledges coming out of Cop26. More than 100 countries, including the US, Japan and Canada, have pledged to cut emissions of methane by 30 per cent by 2030, compared with 2020 levels. Still, this new initiative emphasises making cuts by tackling methane leaking from oil and gas wells, pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure. Just as expected, farming has been neglected once again.

Another topic tackled during the summit was deforestation. 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. Furthermore, 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. 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. However, previous commitments by governments and companies have all failed.

As already mentioned, the main criticism about the role played by food systems in the debate at COP26 concerns the secondary importance they were given when it comes to environmental impact. Not much discussed at COP26, a strategy to adopt in order to reach a meaningful transition towards sustainable food systems involves investing in alternative proteins in light of the enormous environmental cost of current meat and dairy production. 

According to the Good Food Institute, plant-based and cultivated meat cut emissions by up to 92 per cent and that is why governments should fund the transition to new ways of protein production.  Still, most of the funding to date flowing into alternative proteins have come from the private sector, with public financing making up just 1% of the record $3.1 billion invested in 2020. 

Another authoritative criticism comes from Slow Food, which stresses how the approach to food systems debated at Cop26 promotes high-tech monocultures whose futuristic technologies make farmers more and more dependent on multinational companies. On the contrary, Slow Food believes agroecology is the solution, i.e. Agroecology is the application of ecological concepts and principals in farming. the application of ecological concepts and principals in farming whilst rebuilding relationships between agriculture and the environment, and between food systems and society.

To conclude, farming and food systems have been the cow in the room at COP26. Finance, energy and transport were in the limelight during the two weeks of the conference, whereas deforestation was given limited attention. However, cutting meat consumption through alternative protein production, food waste and subsidies to agriculture were almost completely ignored. Was COP26 the umpteenth lost opportunity to revolutionize the way our society and governments approach food?