The Field Report: As COP27 Approaches, a Push for More Attention to Food and Agriculture | Civil Eats

The Field Report: As COP27 Approaches, a Push for More Attention to Food and Agriculture

Plus: A new report found just 3 percent of public climate dollars go to the food system, and experts say even that funding often goes to the wrong things.

A details of a shop inside Mercado de La Boqueria, in Barcelona. Photo credit: Jacopo Maia, Unsplash

On November 6, world leaders will meet in Egypt for COP27, the 27th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference. In the run-up to the event, many groups are calling attention to what they see as an alarming lack of progress toward reducing emissions from food and agriculture and building a more resilient system.

On Monday, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food (GAFF) published a report showing that while funding has increased significantly, global governments are only directing 3 percent of their climate dollars toward food and agriculture systems. At the same time, a much larger amount of public money is being spent to prop up food and agriculture practices that can undermine climate action, such as the expansion of industrial beef and dairy production—and 70 percent of countries’ climate plans don’t include any details on how they will take action on food.

“Our research reveals a huge gap between countries’ stated levels of climate ambition and their plans to tackle climate impacts from food,” Patty Fong, GAFF’s Climate Program Director, said in a press release. That gap is especially significant given the findings of a U.N. report published Wednesday that concluded more than three-quarters of countries who made overall climate commitments last year are failing to live up to them, putting the planet on track for dangerous levels of warming.

Depending on how the number is calculated, the food and agriculture system accounts for between one-quarter and one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Food production is also especially vulnerable to climate impacts, including droughts, wildfires, and floods. In IPCC reports released over the past year, the world’s top climate experts emphasized the need to address that contribution and impact. In fact, they estimated that changes to the sector could provide nearly one-third of the greenhouse gas reductions urgently needed to avoid catastrophic outcomes.

At COP26 last year in Glasgow, food was in the spotlight slightly more than in previous years. Most significantly, more than 100 countries launched the Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions 30 percent from 2020 levels by 2030. Livestock, food waste, and rice production are major contributors to methane emissions around the world, and reducing them was one of the driving goals behind the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) launch of the Agriculture Innovation Mission (AIM) for Climate last year.

But at an event this week called “Beyond Carbon: Food Systems, Climate and Greenwashing at COP27” organized and hosted by IPES-Food and A Growing Culture (AGC), scientists, advocates, and journalists pointed to AIM as an example of corporate greenwashing. Ricardo Salvador, the director of food and environment at the Union of Concerned Scientists (and a member of Civil Eats’ advisory board), said that everyone should be wary of food and agriculture solutions coming out of COP27 that “keep the system in place and make it a little less bad. There is an entire corporate infrastructure that has a vested interest in continuing to extract.”

That infrastructure is on full display in the list of organizations involved in the USDA’s AIM for Climate projects: Among the partners are CropLife International, the pesticide industry’s lobby group, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, and JBS, the world’s largest meat company. (It should also be noted that Coca-Cola, the world’s number one producer of fossil fuel-based plastic waste, is a sponsor of COP27.)

Salvador and others at the AGC event called for world governments to address the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture as a system, focusing not only on carbon emissions but on agriculture’s many other environmental and social impacts, and to give more weight to agroecology, an approach widely viewed as a more holistic, ecosystem- and worker-friendly alternative.

“The vision being pushed for agriculture [at COP27] is one that tinkers around the edges of an industrial system,” said Shefali Sharma, the director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in Europe, during the event. As a result, she said, they may reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit of food by continuing to intensify and consolidate production, but it won’t lead to overall reductions in emissions. “The real test is whether we’re creating systems change toward reducing agriculture’s overall climate footprint,” she said. IATP also published a critical analysis of AIM for Climate and the Sustainable Productivity Growth Coalition, another initiative that will be represented at COP27, that is centered on the same ideas.

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Agroecology is especially relevant to this year’s conference given its location: The approach has been adopted by many smallholder farmers in Africa, even as international aid organizations have pushed a different approach, bringing industrial inputs and systems to those farmers.

That issue was at the center of the first of four podcast episodes related to food and agriculture at COP27 released by IATP this week. During the episode, IATP experts said that the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) will be a key player. “AFSA will be at COP27 as well, trying to get agroecology recognized as a fundamental climate adaptation strategy, especially for Africa, which is already facing some dire climate impacts,” said host Lilly Richards.

Getting that recognition will be an uphill battle, but these groups angling for a broader, more systemic approach to tackling the climate impacts of the food system did add one tool to their toolkit this week. On Monday, researchers from U.C. Santa Barbara published a landmark study on the environmental impacts of global food production. Instead of merely assessing and comparing foods on greenhouse gas emissions per unit, it also measures the scale of cumulative emissions, water use, habitat disturbance, and nutrient pollution. And the researchers found that five developed nations, including the U.S., contribute nearly half of food’s cumulative global footprint.

Read More:
New U.N. Climate Report Urges Food Systems Solutions—Before It’s Too Late
How the Largest Global Meat Companies Evade Climate Scrutiny
Op-Ed: There Is Ample Evidence That Agroecology Can Transform the Food System

What About Organic? In organic farming news, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Swette Center at Arizona State University, and Californians for Pesticide Reform on Thursday will publish a 65-page report that makes a case for organic agriculture as the best approach to reap climate, health, and economic benefits in the U.S.

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Over the past decade, demand for organic food has skyrocketed, driving a growing market, but the amount of agricultural land that is certified organic has held steady at less than 1 percent (although the statistics may be slightly behind reality at this point since the latest data is from 2019). That’s despite various private initiatives to grow organic farmland. The report is timed to coincide with farm bill negotiations, which will be accelerating in the coming months, and lays out a plan to increase the federal investment in organic. For example, it proposes tripling federal money for organic research to $217 million per year.

“Expanding organic agriculture is an investment in our future, one that could ultimately produce significant returns. Today’s conventional system contains immense hidden costs subsidized by our tax dollars that we can no longer afford,” said Kathleen Merrigan, the executive director of the Swette Center, in a press release.

Read More:
The Future of Organic 
Can Organic Farming Solve the Climate Crisis?

Sick Turkeys. Despite lack of national attention to the issue, avian influenza, or “bird flu” has continued to wreak havoc on commercial and backyard poultry flocks across the country. According to USDA data, since dangerous strains first began showing up on farms last February, 44.6 million birds in 43 states have been infected. And as Thanksgiving approaches, it appears commercial turkey flocks are taking the worst hits.

According to USDA data, more than 400,000 turkeys were confirmed infected in the past two weeks alone, in states including Utah, California, and South Dakota. At one farmers’ market last weekend, a Maryland poultry farmer expressed dismay over a flock of 15,000 birds that had been killed and disposed of near his farm. Farmers like him, who depend on turkey sales this time of year, are terrified that their farms will be next.

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Read More:
A Deadly Bird Flu Resurfaces
Could Large Livestock Operations Cause the Next Pandemic?

This article was updated to include IPES-Food as an organizer of the Beyond Carbon event, and to add Ricardo Salvador’s role as a member of the Civil Eats advisory board.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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