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.

Share this blog!

Herbicide resistance and tackling the challenge of sustainable food production

By Bárbara Pinho, MSc Science Communication Student, University of Sheffield

The sustainable production of food is a challenge yet to be accomplished. Agriculture uses 70% of all fresh water and produces a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, as well as leads to biodiversity loss and soil degradation.

Producing food sustainably is a challenge we must tackle in order to feed the generations to come. According to the United Nations, the world population is expected to reach an astonishing 9.7 billion by 2050. Putting it simply, more people means more mouths to feed in the future.

However, with no new land to explore, increased urbanisation and a rising sea level (which reduces land availability), growing food to feed almost 10 billion people is far from an easy task. This is where science may be of help.

For decades, scientific research has been developing tools and strategies to grow increasing amounts of food in shorter periods of time. One particular discovery revolutionised how farmers grow food worldwide: herbicides.

Research and herbicides

When herbicides were created amid the Second World War, they provided farmers with cost-effective and quick methods to kill invasive species, commonly known as weeds. However, as years went by, these chemicals stopped being as effective due to a process called herbicide resistance.

Weeds that are exposed to the same type of herbicides, sooner or later, resist said herbicides. They can resist due to genetic alterations (such as mutations) or multiple molecular strategies to counteract a herbicide mode of action. This ultimately leads to weeds surviving and damaging entire crops while jeopardising yield production.

This is a global issue. At the time of writing, there were 262 species resistant to herbicides worldwide. In the UK, 20,000 farms have resistant black-grass, the most common weed in the UK. This is estimated to cause the loss of 0.82 million tonnes of wheat which in turn costs £0.38 billion in lost income to farmers.

These costs are not limited to just farmers though. If we don’t find solutions to guarantee a stable wheat production, we may eventually experience price spikes in certain products. In addition to this, the consequences of herbicide resistance threaten achieving the objective of feeding almost 10 billion people by 2050. What was already difficult, just got considerably more complicated.

Solving herbicide resistance

To address this issue, current research is exploring multiple strategies. At the University of Sheffield, Professor Robert Freckleton, who teaches Population Biology, described herbicide resistance as a “very difficult” issue to solve:

“It may be that the evolution of resistance to herbicides – or any biocide including antibiotics, fungicides, insecticides or cancer drugs – is inevitable.”

Most research at the University of Sheffield has been focusing on gauging the impact of herbicide resistance on farmers.

The Black-Grass Resistance Initiative

Wheat in fieldBetween 2014 and 2017, researchers from Sheffield together with other academics from Rothamsted Research, the Zoological Society of London, Newcastle University and the University of York launched the Black-Grass Resistance Initiative.

Among other goals, this project aimed to “unravel herbicide resistance in black-grass from gene to field”.

Through this project, the researchers were aiming to understand how some resistance mechanisms develop in weeds.

They also monitored black-grass in fields and interviewed farmers to design new management strategies to tackle resistant weeds.

In addition, this research estimated how herbicide resistance impacts both the economy and the environment.

These impact assessments lead the multi-institutional team to develop new management strategies in conjunction with farmers. The suggestions were mainly designed to delay herbicide resistance, through non-chemical techniques, as Professor Freckleton later explained:

“The best tactic is to slow or delay [herbicide resistance] and that can be done by relying on a diversity of control tactics. ‘Cultural control’ includes using tillage, crop rotation and other forms of weed control. Vigilance with monitoring and testing is important though. In many cases, it is too late to do anything by the time the problem has emerged and got out of hand.”

Crop science and new herbicides

While the obvious solution to tackle herbicide resistance would be to use fewer herbicides, this may be an unrealistic scenario. Farmers have been using herbicides and pesticides for decades to grow more food, as fast as possible. While it would be ideal to stop using chemicals in farming practice, Professor Ari Sadanandom from Durham University doesn’t think it’s feasible to ask that of farmers:

“I don’t think [stopping the use of herbicides] is a good way of moving forward; otherwise, how could you control weeds? Unless you clear all the soil of all the weed seeds, it’s not plausible, I think.”

At Durham University, research to bring solutions that tackle herbicide resistance reaches many different areas.

“Some people are working on fundamental plant science involving crops and they could generate new solutions. Other researchers are working with barley whilst others are working on cold stress and heat stress. The knowledge they get from these tests could be used to control weeds. The Chemistry Department is also working with new herbicides and focusing on making new products,” described Professor Sadanandom.

His research is more focused on studying fungal diseases in crops via cell biology. Still, he believes this to be a transferable area into herbicide-resistant yields. “I may start working with black-grass in the future because we may be able to bring some techniques that we’ve learned in the fungicide resistance world.”

Whether it be through new management strategies or making new herbicides, research is playing a key role in tackling a major threat to food security.

If we’re to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050 and even more in the decades to come, new strategies and techniques to complement farming practice may soon become the norm for farmers worldwide.

This blog was written as part of ‘The Path of Leaf Resistance’ project, which aims to raise awareness of herbicide resistance. Both this blog and the website are part of an MSc in Science Communication project conducted by Bárbara Pinho and supervised by Professor Robert Freckleton at the University of Sheffield.

All data collected for the project will serve the purpose of research on public engagement with the topic of herbicide resistance. This YouTube video has been created as part of the project to raise awareness and develop understanding of the issue of herbicide resistance.

Share this blog!