As COP26 nears, activists say agriculture should be a bigger part of the agenda

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), which starts Oct. 31 in Glasgow, has been billed as a “turning point” for humanity and the “last, best chance” of averting climate disaster. And given the growing awareness of the central role that food and agricultural systems play in climate change—both as a cause and as part of a potential solution—many activists say that the sector is not as big a piece of the COP26 agenda as it should be.

Food production is a major contributor to climate change, responsible for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. The food system is also highly vulnerable to climate changes’ effects, like droughts and floods. At the same time, agriculture and land use are increasingly being touted as solutions to mitigating climate change through carbon storage.

“In the two weeks of COP, there isn’t a single day dedicated to food and agriculture issues, despite the clear attention that’s being given by civil society, researchers and by international institutions on the links between food and climate,” says Chantal Wei-Ying Clément, deputy director of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, noting that she and others had pushed for food systems to be a more prominent part of the negotiations.

Still, food will get more consideration at COP26 than at other recent climate conferences, said Ed Davey, the international engagement director of The Food and Land Use Coalition. The Koronivia Joint Work, for instance, an agreement to reduce emissions in the food system that was established in 2017, will be part of the debate. But the real litmus test for the role that food and agriculture will play in the negotiations, Davey said, will be found in each nation’s blueprint for how to limit its greenhouse gas emissions.

As part of the 2015 Paris Agreement, each country must submit new or updated pledges—called Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs—this year on how they will further cut emissions. Not every country that agreed to submit an updated pledge has done so, including China, which emits more greenhouse gases annually than any other nation. Chinese president Xi Jinping has not announced whether he will attend COP26; the Kremlin said last week that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be there. Meanwhile, President Biden is reportedly bringing a team of 13 cabinet members and top advisers to Glasgow.

The U.S. plan aims to cut emissions to 50-52 percent below 2005 levels by focusing primarily on the transportation sector, buildings (including electricity, heating and cooling) and industry. But it also would tap the carbon-storage potential of the country’s “vast lands” and cut agricultural emissions by scaling up “climate smart” practices like cover cropping, reforestation and rotational grazing. Under the plan, federal and state governments also would invest in forest protection and management, try to reduce the scale of wildfires and boost “blue carbon” storage by restoring coastal and marine ecosystems like tidal marshes and seagrass ecosystems.

The Biden administration has previously announced a goal of getting U.S. agriculture to zero net emissions by 2050, and to significantly cut emissions in the coming decade.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who is part of Biden’s Glasgow team, said last week, “I frankly think agriculture can be at the leading edge of climate change and reduction of greenhouse gases.” To get there, he called for a paradigm shift. “Historically, we’ve had an extraction economy in this country. We’ve essentially taken things from the land, taken things out of the land. What we really need is to move away from that extraction model to one in which basically we are replicating nature.”

In Glasgow, the U.S. and United Arab Emirates will officially launch the The Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, which aims to increase investment and accelerate climate-smart agriculture and other food system innovation. So far, 30 countries have signed on to the voluntary initiative.

Additionally, the U.S. and the EU will unveil The Global Methane Pledge, a major effort to cut methane emissions 30 percent by 2030. Methane is a short-lived greenhouse gas responsible for about a quarter of current warming. Globally, some 40 percent of methane comes from agriculture and livestock. But that number is higher in the U.S., where half of methane comes from agriculture, especially from large-scale hog and dairy farms.

As part of the effort to cut methane emissions, the U.S. has promised new regulations for the oil and gas industry and tougher pollution standards for landfills. But environmentalists say the plan gives the livestock industry a “free pass” because it includes no new regulations and only voluntary measures, such as incentives to adopt so-called climate friendly practices like anaerobic digesters and improved livestock feeds. Davey says he expects to see mounting pressure on governments to address methane emissions from animal agriculture.

Overall, the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions are currently 17 percent below 2005 levels, according to government estimates. The United States has emitted more carbon into the atmosphere, cumulatively, than any other nation, and has the highest per-capita carbon emissions in the world. Only China emits more greenhouse gasses annually.

COP26, which runs through Nov. 12, comes on the heels of two other high-level UN summits focused on food systems and biodiversity. There are growing calls to coordinate action on all three fronts—hunger and malnutrition, climate and biodiversity loss. The food system is considered the main driver of biodiversity loss worldwide, and global hunger is rising, fueled in part by climate change.

“It’s not just a climate crisis we’re facing right now,” said Chantal Wei-Ying Clément. “We have a biodiversity crisis, a health crisis through the pandemic, and we also are dealing with ongoing poverty and malnutrition issues. We really need to understand that these things are interconnected and tackle them jointly.”

If national governments aren’t yet taking a comprehensive approach to the interrelated issues of food systems and climate, many states and cities are, Clément said. Bruges, Brussels, for example, is trying to shift residents’ diet to be 60 percent plant-based by 2030. To address hunger and food waste, São Paulo, Brazil, now collects unsold food from its markets and redirects what’s edible to the hungry while composting the rest.

To recognize this sort of work, and push national policymakers to do more, Clément will help present the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration on November 6. Signatories—which include dozens of local governments worldwide, such as Austin, Texas, Philadelphia and New Haven, Connecticut—commit to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in local and regional food systems, using food policy to fight climate change, and involving all sectors of the food chain.

Michael Fakhri, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, says this understanding that the problems are inseparable is becoming more widespread, and that he thinks that food systems, while remaining somewhat marginal on the climate agenda, are gaining “a foothold” in international climate policy circles. Transformative systemic change will require breaking down the fragmentation between groups working on hunger, agricultural policy and the environment, he said.

Climate change can often feel like an abstract problem, Fakhri said, and a focus on food systems can help build broader support for action. “Focusing on the food system makes the issue of climate change very real, very specific, very concrete,” he said.