The latest draft text of the COP26 agreement is out and has been pored over by the media and every sector of industry. Amendments have been made, some for better, some for worse, but what’s absolutely staggering to us is that searches for the words “farming”, “agriculture” and “food” return no results. Not once in the entire eight-page document is farming and agriculture—contributor of up to 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions—mentioned.
The Green Zone at COP26 looked like a Sainsbury’s trade show, a polished pop-up marketing campaign. It featured a “helping everyone eat better” adventure trail designed to breadcrumb onlookers into thinking that big supermarkets have the best interests of people and the planet at heart, which, of course, they don’t. Sainsbury’s, it turns out, was one of the summit’s key sponsors.
And though this feels like a massive blow to what was probably the most critical meeting of world governments in the fight against climate change, we can hardly say we’re surprised. World leaders have put the profits generated by the industrialised food system, its supermarkets and big corporations, ahead of the needs of global citizens and environmental protections since the whole event began. While Sainsbury’s made its pitch for our shopping baskets, there was a gaping hole in the COP26 agenda where the discussion around farming and agricultural reform—one of the key ways we could actually turn the tide on climate change—should have been.
A sustainable food systems no-show
Sectors such as energy and transport were given significant airtime at the summit. But, while there was a Farmers Day on Wednesday 3rd and agriculture was given a slot on Saturday’s Nature Day, the impossible logistics of the event meant that the people who could really drive agricultural reform—small-scale producers and growers—weren’t able to have their voices heard. Considering that the IPCC’s report earlier this year found food production to be a leading cause of global emissions and, thus, one of the key ways of tackling it, this is pretty unbelievable.
Finance Day did see Mark Carney, former Bank of England Governor, pledge $130 trillion on behalf of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) towards achieving the 2050 zero emissions goal, $32 trillion of which is needed over the next decade. The alliance has six key sectors for private financial investment in its sights: electricity, transport, buildings, industry, low-emission fuels, and AFOLU—Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use. However, AFOLU has only been allocated $1.5 trillion of the $32 trillion required over the next ten years. And we have to wonder what that money will be spent on.
The USDA failed to recognise the need to reduce the average American’s meat consumption, calling it unnecessary. Instead, it suggested that the industrialised meat industry could carry on as long as it captures methane by turning it into biogas. There was no mention of agroecological principles that could actually heal and reverse the harms the current food system is causing. So it seems it’s business as usual with a spin.
To highlight that point, large-scale beef and dairy farming is the biggest source of agricultural emissions, and back in September, a UN report cited that up to 90% of global farming subsidies were paid out to support beef and dairy farmers. Aside from its undeniable environmental impact, industrial farming is destroying people’s health and marginalising smallholder farmers.
Repositioning business as usual
So, what exactly happened on Nature Day? Was there any good news to be found? Well, there was the announcement of the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate / AIM4C), a joint venture between the US and UAE which has pledged to pump $4bn into agricultural innovation. A good thing, surely? Certainly it has the premise of a solution, but when you dig into its ambitions to fund the development of “climate-smart” agriculture and food systems, it seems to have totally overlooked small-scale agroecological farming principles in favour of developing new tech and climate-resistant crops that can support/withstand the current setup. This isn’t just missing the point, it’s feeding straight back into the corporate machine by giving money to tech companies to solve the crisis that was driven by greed in the first place—proof that governments would rather prop up corporate monopolies than take the progressive steps needed.
Where were the calls for truly innovating the food system by moving away from industialised and monoculture methods in favour of re-establishing healthy ecosystems? Where were the arguments for agroecology and its massive potential for sequestering atmospheric carbon? Where were the promises to let farmers lead sustainable innovation? They didn’t come from inside COP26, that’s for sure.
The Good News
All this said, though it’s been tough to watch things unfold as they have when we know that there’s a solution that already exists—literally under our feet—there have been some glimmers of hope. The best example is the The Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration, which was presented to 100 local governments on Sat 6th November with a call for others to sign.
It focuses on an integrated food systems approach to climate change, which considers all food systems’ impacts, holistically. It argues that, “A food systems approach considers the range of actors and underlying socio-cultural, economic, biophysical, and institutional factors that shape our food systems and makes it easier to develop coherent policies, address tensions, and deliver the food systems transformation needed to tackle urgent environmental and nutritional challenges”.
It prioritises a sub-national and local approach, because this is where most of the sustainable food system innovation is happening. And this is what we’ve been championing since we set up our Better Food Traders network.
Governments are failing to put the essential regulatory mechanisms in place to make change happen quickly enough, so what does that mean for the rest of us? Well, we’re going to carry on supporting and championing businesses who are creating alternatives to the current food system and the big supermarkets, and you can join us. Support small and not-for-profit, farmers and growers that are invested in making our future food system a sustainable one and protecting the planet instead of destroying it.
To echo the aims of the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration, we need to amplify the voices of the underdogs in global conversations around food. And, although we citizens can’t sign the Declaration, we can show our support for a sustainable food system by buying our food from those who are trying to create it.
Find your local Better Food Trader now, and help us tell those in charge that business as usual is done.