As the last few days of COP26 comes to a head there is frustration that the climate talks have been more ‘blah, blah, blah’, as Greta Thunberg memorably put it.
The latest scientific assessment suggests that current commitments by countries to cut carbon fails to prevent dangerous global warming.
And new data from the UN found that emissions from our food, driven by deforestation for animal feed and nitrous oxide from fertiliser, has risen by 17 per cent.
At the ten-day COP26 conference in Glasgow there was unfortunately no single day dedicated to food, as there was for transport and energy. But just a glance at the agenda showed a number of events dedicated to issues around the food system, from the potential of storing carbon in grasslands, to the possibility of replacing animal protein with insects.
COP veterans agreed that food is going up the agenda. Patty Fong, programme director at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, said she had never seen so many food events at a COP.
Just as the global community needs a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, she said the world must work on an equitable transition to a food system that produces fewer greenhouse gases and provides healthy food for all.
“The climate community talk about a just transition. In food it is about food sovereignty,” she explained.
Brent Loken, global food lead scientist at WWF, said COP26 cannot possibly meet the goal of the Paris Agreement, which is to keep temperature rise below 1.5C, without looking at the food sector, which is now responsible for almost a third of emissions.
Those within the sector are already trying to cut their emissions and transform the food sector, and despite no dedicated day, they were visible across the conference.
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, attended the conference to call for financial support to help farmers produce food while producing net zero carbon, something she says they can do without reducing the numbers of livestock.
“If we took livestock out of the system – meat and dairy – then we would be totally reliant on chemical fertilisers. That would be disastrous for greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. “Livestock is a big part of the soil solution.”
And an early agreement saw the bosses of five of the UK’s biggest supermarkets promise to halve the environmental impact of a weekly food shop by the end of the decade. The initiative, in partnership with WWF, could see a switch to electric vehicles in the supply chain and promotion of more plant-based protein.
There were also agreements on cutting methane, which would include countries making an effort to reduce food waste to landfill, and halting deforestation that would both bring down the emissions of agriculture.
In the informal spaces outside the event there were also farmers and food producers. Nourish Scotland took over a nearby church and the People’s Summit gave space to indigenous voices and land workers. But the atmosphere was quite different. Here there was more anger and frustration than hope.
Ninawa, chief of the Huni Kui people in western Brazil, said indigenous people, who protect more than 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity, do not have a voice at the conference.
“I am here to bring the voice of the peoples of the rainforest and tell the world what is happening with the soy plantations in the Amazon. Deforestation is destroying the Amazon fuelled by multi-national corporations,” he said.
“A driver of deforestation is the meat industry…If there was less of a demand for Brazilian beef there would be less deforestation.”
Others pointed out pledges to cut carbon at COP are primarily aimed at making business as usual (including industrial farming) more sustainable, rather than recognising it’s this system that has caused the crisis in the first place.
Holly Tomlinson, of The Landworkers’ Alliance, said food and farming has been more prominent at COP26. But she was disappointed that small farmers, who provide 70 to 80 per cent of the food you eat, have not been invited into the official discussions.
She said the small farmers need support to phase out fossil fuels and have a great deal of expertise to share on storing carbon in the soils.
Agroecology could include more trees on farms, local food supply chains and pastoralist livestock systems, and in doing so can help cool the Earth, the LWA said.
Loken, from the WWF, agreed that ideas for food system change needs to come “from the bottom up”.
“We need to start connecting the top and the bottom,” he said. “I love these ground-up movements that are happening all over the world, but if we don’t have an international multilateral process to support it, it’s not going to be enough. We cannot rely just on the individuals to do the work.”
Food has certainly gone up the agenda, but the focus now is on what kind of food, who benefits, who it's produced by and for, and an emphasis on low-carbon agriculture. It remains to be seen how this is catered for at COP27, to be held in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt next year.