The More the Climate Changes, the More Everything Stays the Same: COP26 Advances Industrial Agriculture and Undermines Real Solutions

By AGRA Watch intern Camille Marie Munro

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP261) is currently underway in Glasgow, Scotland. Although COP26 has been deemed a turning point for humanity and described by conference organizers as the “world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control,” not a single day of the 10-day summit will be dedicated to issues surrounding food and agriculture, despite the growing awareness of the prominent links between food systems and climate change. This absence is especially alarming considering the heightened attention that civil society, researchers, and international institutions have recently given to the central role that industrial agriculture plays in contributing to climate change–and the role that agroecology plays in developing solutions.

The global food system–which is overwhelmingly industrial, corporate, and commercial in its current form–represents an unfortunate byproduct of the destructive fossil fuel industry. As such, food production is one of the main culprits of the ongoing climate crisis, contributing 44-47 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The food system both heavily contributes to the climate crisis and is highly vulnerable to its many effects, such as droughts, storms, and floods. A 2017 report found that each degree Celsius increase in global temperatures would, on average, reduce global yields of wheat, rice, and soybean- which together provide about two-thirds of human caloric intake worldwide- by 6%, 3.2%, and 3.1%, respectively. This data, when paired with the UN Environment Programme’s assessment that the 2021 climate pledges put the world on track for a 2.7 degree celsius temperature rise by the end of the century, demonstrates why there needs to be discussion of how to prepare the globe’s farms for the accelerating shocks of a quickly warming climate.2

The discussions of food systems which have managed to make their way onto the table at COP26 are mostly those that continue to center market-based, industrial, and technological solutions. In a recent article, Paolo Nano from Slow Food pointed out that we are “witnessing the recycling of an old model, which keeps considering food as a series of commodities to be produced on a large scale, with monocultures assisted by futuristic technologies that will make farmers increasingly dependent on large multinational companies and their patents.” At COP26, “radical” change mostly looks like corporate net-zero pledges, geo-engineering, and digitalization of agriculture–risky techno-fixes that are reminiscent of the detrimental practices instituted by the Green Revolution. And like those which were promoted by Green Revolution proponents, these “solutions” prioritize integrating GMOs and agrochemicals into small-scale agricultural schemes, maintaining climate inaction, and maximizing profits for corporate elites. 

This situation has come as the result of a corporate invasion of supposedly democratic global civil society spaces at COP26. This takeover is facilitated by the same stakeholder capitalism that allowed the UN Food Systems Summit to be overcome by corporate influences earlier this year. The watered down solutions that we are witnessing at COP26 are the product of ongoing and increasing lobbying by multinational agribusiness and fossil fuel corporations at national, subnational, and global levels.

The impact of the corporate capture of COP26 can be found by looking at two examples: 1) the powerful synthetic nitrogen (N) fertilizer lobby and 2) the United States’ Nationally Determined Contribution (NDCs) that is being proposed at COP26. 

  1. The production and use of synthetic N fertilizers, which have increased in usage by 800% since the 1960s, accounted for roughly 21.5% of the annual direct emissions from agriculture in 2018. Yet at all policymaking levels, including at COP26, the fertilizer industry and its business and government allies are maintaining that the damages caused by the excessive use of and dependence on these fertilizers can be resolved through precision agriculture or climate-smart agriculture–two practices that the data suggests may actually increase usage of synthetic N fertilizers, particularly in places (like Africa) with already low rates of fertilizer application. Although a transition away from synthetic N fertilizers must occur in order to combat climate change, alternatives are hardly considered due to powerful lobbying.
  2. Globally, some 40 percent of methane comes from agriculture and livestock.3 This number is higher in the US, however, where half of methane emissions come from agriculture, especially large-scale meat and dairy farms. Yet the livestock industry largely remains unscathed by climate commitments, as it includes no new regulations and only voluntary measures, such as incentives to adopt “climate-friendly” practices like anaerobic digesters and improved livestock feed. One member of Biden’s Glasgow team who is largely to blame for this “free pass” is Secretary of Agriculture and former dairy executive Tom Vilsack. Vilsack has joined with industry groups and agrochemical corporations (including Bayer, Syngenta, and Corteva) against the European Commission’s proposal to slash farm pesticide use, meat consumption, and food-related greenhouse gas emissions.

The unyielding influence of multinational agribusiness corporations restricts what we conceive of as viable solutions to the climate crisis and distracts us from the voices of those who are best situated to determine a just path forward. Truly sustainable and effective solutions exist, but have not yet been promoted and supported on a large scale because governments have been largely unable to escape the influence of multinational corporations. But food systems rooted in agroecology, food sovereignty, and human rights can dramatically reduce carbon emissions and cool the planet. Agroecology represents a method of achieving climate justice that looks radically (and rightfully) different from those that produced the crisis.

Although the current situation in Glasgow is bleak, agroecological proponents are on the ground fighting to uplift these practices to the mainstream: the Landworkers’ Alliance, a La Via Campesina member organization, is working to bring the voices of agroecological land workers to COP26 by calling for “recognition of the contribution that agroecological farming, sustainable forestry, and better land use can make towards our commitments to reduce emissions, sequester carbon and build resilience.” COP26 has also given way to a rise in mobilizing efforts at subnational levels, which are far less constrained by industry lobbies– one example of this is the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration, a grassroots effort to get cities and states worldwide to commit to “developing sustainable food policies and calling on national governments to put food and farming at the heart of the response to the climate emergency.” Seventy cities have already signed on, including five in the United States. As activists who are aware of the transformational potential of agroecological practices rooted in ideals of food sovereignty and human rights to healthy food and a clean environment, it is crucial for us to continue applying pressure wherever we can, and to ensure that our voices are louder than those of industry lobbyists.

1 The Conference of Parties (COP) is the decision-making body of member nations and territories that monitor and implement the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and other legal instruments adopted by the COP. Unless otherwise decided, COP meets every year; the first COP was held in 1995.

2 So far, the mean global temperature has risen about 1.1°C since the Industrial Revolution.

3 Methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas that traps between 25 and 100 times the amount of heat as carbon dioxide, depending on the time period of measurement after emissions. This makes continuing increases in its atmospheric concentration very alarming and dangerous.


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