COP27: Agriculture finally on table; beware of greenwashing though, warn experts

The first official Food and Agriculture Pavilion at a UNFCCC COP has been unveiled at Sharm El-Sheikh

By Shagun
Published: Monday 07 November 2022

Food systems and agriculture are finally on the table of a Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). There will be dedicated discussions on food and agriculture at the first official Food and Agriculture Pavilion at the 27th COP that began November 6, 2022 at Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

The Pavilion is hosted by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, CGIAR and The Rockefeller Foundation at the climate conference.

This comes at a crucial time. The unprecedented drought situation in Europe, the United States and Africa, the heatwave that impacted India’s wheat crop and floods and droughts in Pakistan and China are all stark evidence of how food production is at risk from extreme weather events.

Organisations representing over 350 million farmers and producers wrote an open letter to world leaders November 7. They warned that global food security is at risk unless governments boost adaptation finance for small-scale production and promote a shift to more diverse, low-input agriculture.

Agriculture, the missing link

Agriculture is a victim of climate change. But it is also responsible for more than a third of all greenhouse gas emissions.

However, food systems have not been addressed comprehensively at any climate COP and most countries’ climate plans do not include plans to take action on food systems.

The only programme under UNFCCC that focuses on agriculture and food security was the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA), which was established in 2017 at COP23 in Bonn, Germany.

The KJWA has since been considered the formal mechanism for discussing food at COP. It did organise a few events at COP26 in Glasgow, but as usual, its voice and visibility was subdued.

Read Indian agriculture: The route post-CoP 26

 “The Food and Agriculture Pavilion will put the transformation of agrifood systems at the heart of the COP agenda for the first time as an important part of the solution to the climate crisis,” the FAO said in a statement.

The array of discussions during the next two weeks include adaption for resilient agriculture in Africa, climate security for drylands, vulnerability of food systems to global food crisis, conflicts and trade shocks, and low emission climate resilient development strategies.

“In the last one year we have seen the impact of crop production right in our faces. This year, the world has woken up to the idea that the surpluses we all assume we had in agriculture don’t really exist,” Shweta Saini, agriculture and policy researcher and promoter-director at Arcus Policy Research, told Down To Earth.

“In India, we thought we will never be short of rice and wheat. So, this is particularly a year where the evidence of the impact of climate change on food crops is right in everybody’s faces. Therefore, this discussion at COP is very timely,” she added.

Experts blame the bulk of the emissions from the sector on industrial agriculture and highlight a dire need to make a shift to agroecology. That means working with nature and local communities to support food security, livelihoods, biodiversity and help to buffer temperature extremes and sequester carbon.

We must completely transform the way we eat, farm and distribute food, Nicole Pita, project manager, IPES (International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems)-Food, said.

Pita noted that in terms of production systems, industrial models of agriculture that are reliant on agrichemicals and monoculture cropping are failing people and the climate.

This is because they have failed to end hunger, are depleting natural resources, exacerbating climate change and are highly vulnerable to shocks, be they from supply chains or from climate extremes.

“Instead, we need to build resilient, diverse food and farming systems based on agroecology,” she said.

Lim Li Ching, a senior researcher at the Third World Network and on the panel of IPES, contrasted the impacts and emissions of industrial agriculture versus the small-scale forms of agriculture.

“Identifying which agriculture is responsible for climate change is important. Small-scale traditional and biologically diverse forms of agriculture have comparatively minimal input to greenhouse gas emissions but the small-scale farmers are disproportionately impacted by climate change even though they have done little to cause the crisis,” she said while speaking at an event organised by IPES-Food and non-profit A Growing Culture.

This underscored the need for urgent climate justice action and transforming food systems away from industrial agriculture, she added.

Greenwashing industrial agriculture

“The glaring issue is sustaining food security at the moment. The time for mitigation has gone and we have to now adapt and adapt fast — on crops, techniques and technology,” Saini said.

Meanwhile, Pita warns of greenwashing of industrial agricultural practices at COP27. “A growing number of green buzzwords are being used to obstruct food system reform at the climate COP. One particular term, ‘nature-based solutions’, is rapidly gaining traction at international summits, but it lacks an agreed definition, a transformative vision and is being used to maintain agribusiness as usual,” she said.

A report called Smokes & Mirror, released by IPES-Food October 27, analysed narratives at the 2021 United Nations Food Summits, COP26.

It found that agrifood corporations, international philanthropic organisations, and some governments are using the term ‘nature-based solutions’ to “hijack the food system sustainability agenda”, bundling it with unproven carbon offsetting schemes that are risky for land competition, the climate and entrench big agribusiness power.

Read Hostile takeover: Why seed sovereignty in Africa is under threat

“At COP27, one would be wise to watch out for giant agri-businesses, powerful governments, and philanthropists promoting themselves as food and climate saviours. Under the guise of ‘nature-based’ or ‘climate smart’ solutions, they are perpetuating the centralised, polluting, vulnerable system of industrial monoculture farming,” she said.

For instance, the United States and United Arab Emirates-led Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM4C) has been criticised by favouring big businesses and promoting uncertain techno-fixes. The mission was launched at COP26.

Part of the promotion of climate-smart agriculture which AIM4C is doing is unproven techno fixes like feed additives and other things like more efficient use of agrochemicals, fertilisers, pesticides, Shefali Sharma, director, Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy-Europe, said at the IPES event.

“These are all practices that we know are not leading to produce differently but are polluting land and water,” she said.

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