Looking for Food Systems Transformation at COP26

By Dr Stephen Whitfield, Associate Professor of Climate Change and Food Security, University of Leeds, and COP26 Fellow

Attending COP26, as a representative of the University of Leeds, was a real privilege, in both  the positive and negative connotations of the word. It was two jam-packed weeks of meeting people from all over the world, attending mind-opening events, and having close-up peeks into important negotiations. But the criticisms levelled at the organisation of the conference and its exclusive nature, could not, and should not, be ignored.

For all the diversity of campaigns and climate solutions being promoted in Glasgow, the void left by those perspectives and voices (often from regions of the Global South most directly impacted by climate change) not present, or not permitted, in the vast UNFCCC-controlled delegates area (the Blue zone), was ubiquitous. When it comes to food and agriculture, the relatively (and some have argued disappointingly) small sub-sector of the conference on which I focused my attention, there was an uncomfortable combination of inspiring ideas and notable imbalances.

Shared ambition, but no shared vision, for sustainable agriculture

Agriculture has clearly risen up the UNFCCC agenda in recent years, perhaps catalysed, to some extent, by the Koronivia Joint Working Group on Agriculture. This was initiated in 2017, described at the time a landmark initiative to mainstream agriculture within the convention. There were numerous initiatives and agreements at COP26 that move the agricultural sector much more towards the centre of global climate action. At Glasgow the joint working group were finalising summary of the Koronivia roadmap, a series of international consultations and workshops on sustainable and climate resilient agriculture that concluded this year. But COP26 also saw the launch and endorsement of new ambitious initiatives, such as the Policy Action Agenda for Transition to Sustainable Food and Agriculture and the Global Action Agenda for Innovation in Agriculture, as well as new commitments on reducing deforestation, methane emissions and more.

Carefully constructed and well-briefed panels, usually composed of representatives of agricultural research, industry, donors, banks and an allied farmer organisation, were assembled for the numerous launch and discussion events centred around these ambitious initiatives. The narrative of these was a common one, largely oriented around the scaling up of agricultural innovations. Granted, the importance of participation and context-specificity was usually emphasised, but ultimately these initiatives support a conventional top-down technology-transfer model of agricultural change.

This vision of a growth-oriented, and largely corporate-controlled, sustainable agricultural future fits comfortably in the modernity of the Blue Zone, but is less palatable to those emphasizing and advocating for just transitions, de-growth, food sovereignty, and agro-ecology. These advocates had a limited presence, and likely lack the resources needed to hold physical exhibits and events within the Blue Zone. But the passion and energy behind them sounded loudly nevertheless. Some of the most energising moments that I experienced at COP were the, all too brief, occasions when different perspectives and visions for a future agriculture, were in the same room and debated. That said, I felt somewhat disappointed that the closely-aligned calls for justice and agro-ecology – which, in contrast to the Blue Zone, were very evident in the public protests and fringe events around Glasgow – haven’t yet sufficiently cut through to make it into formal texts of the UNFCCC.

Much more agriculture than food

Whilst agriculture may have arrived at COP26, many people felt that food and diets were missing. Dietary change is certainly political and evidently too thorny, or perhaps too threatening of the status quo, to yet make it on to the discussion table at COP. However, there are important interlinkages between climate and diets, which go beyond the carbon footprint of meat consumption (on which debate tends to be centred). Food must necessarily be higher up and more integral to the UNFCCC agenda – not just in relation to mitigation, but also adaptation, loss and damage and more. The Agri-Food Transition summit, a parallel event held in the Climate Action zone in Glasgow, argued that next year’s COP27, Sharm El-Sheikh, ‘must be a food COP’… and perhaps under an Egyptian presidency, given the acuteness of the relationships between climate and food security on the African continent, it will be.

To find meaningful dialogue around food (beyond polite conversations about the labelling of food- related emissions in conference catering facilities), again it was necessary to step outside of the Blue Zone. Yet, even in the more public spaces and protests around Glasgow, I was left wondering whether the loudest voices, arguing for radical shifts towards plant based diets and localisation, were diverse or nuanced enough to be inclusive and foster dialogue. That said, some forums and actions felt more productive than others. The FAO’s Agri-Food Transition Summit had some genuine moments of constructive dialogue around alternative visions of food systems transformation, and elsewhere there were also some nicely nuanced presentations of pastoralism and diverse livestock production systems that emphasized the importance of contextualised and complex system dynamics when it comes to the footprint of our food.

There is still a long way to go when it comes to acknowledging, let alone achieving, a just transformation in agriculture and food systems. I remain undecided as to whether Glasgow has helped make progress towards this. However, despite understandable public frustrations with the ‘blah, blah, blah’ of COP, I believe that there is a real need for ongoing, meaningful and equitable dialogue. In this regard, whilst we might take away from COP the positive headline-grabbing commitments made by the parties, we should also take away some humbling lessons from what went wrong and work towards greater inclusivity and representation in future summits, which will hopefully have food higher up the agenda.

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Policy Hub experts have their say on what needs to happen to make the National Food Strategy vision a reality.

Food Systems experts from the N8 Universities have contributed to a unique response to the National Food Strategy – advising Government how to implement key policy measures to ensure a healthy and sustainable food system in England.

The report from the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub brings together expertise from the eight most research-intensive universities in the North of England, matching relevant experts in their field to each of the 14 recommendations made in the National Food Strategy’s final report.

Written by Henry Dimbleby, and published this summer, the National Food Strategy was the first independent review of England’s entire food system in 75 years. It aimed to lay out measures for transforming the food system we have today into something better for the future, with a focus on health, the environment, agriculture, resilience and sustainability and the economy.

The Food Systems Policy Hub’s Response document will now be delivered to the white paper team working within Defra, who have been tasked with co-ordinating the official Government response to the National Food Strategy. The Response will also be presented to the National Food Strategy All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), overseen by The Food Foundation.

Within the Response experts from across the N8 Research Partnership have backed important calls for action made in the National Food Strategy, as well as highlighting several key factors missing from the strategy, and suggesting best practice for introducing policy to support the 14 Recommendations made by the National Food Strategy team.

It is the first independent response to the National Food Strategy to combine analysis from multiple institutions, with the Food Systems Policy Hub seeking to ensure a full food systems approach is given to any Government action arising from the National Food Strategy’s recommendations.

The N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub was a created from the N8 AgriFood Project, and works to translate research and expert knowledge from across N8 AgriFood into policy impact, supporting a food systems approach to food related policy at regional, national and international levels within governments, the private sector, charities and NGOs.

Read the document here

Our Review of the National Food Strategy Final Report

Read the document here

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