“Solutions” to food emissions worry experts after COP27

IIn some ways, this year’s UN climate summit, held in Egypt, was all about food. Against the backdrop of poor harvests and food insecurity, due to extreme weather and declining diversity, as well as rising food prices exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine and the narrow grip of corporate monopolies, COP27 included the very first day devoted to food and climate.

Scientists are clear that the interconnected climate, environmental and food crises require bold transformative action to drastically reduce greenhouse gases and improve resilience. Food systems produce a third of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle ranching is the main driver of Amazon rainforest loss, while industrialized food production is the biggest threat to 86% of the world’s endangered species.

US food shows from 1990 to 2019

But at COP27, as in the debate more broadly, corporate interests dominated. Activists and NGOs say the food industry’s fingerprints were all over the touted solutions, including an array of technologies and incentives they say will do little to reduce the huge climate footprint food, reduce diet-related disease or increase long-term food security and climate resilience.

“From treating cow burps to robotic weeders, none of the fake solutions offered at COP27 stop industrial food production from being an engine of planetary destruction,” said Raj Patel, food justice expert and author of Stuffed. and Starved. “Agribusiness and governments have come up with a series of patented fixes designed not to transform the food system, but to keep it the same.”

There’s still a lot to be learned from Cop27, but here are some of the food ‘solutions’ that experts told the Guardian are most alarmed at:

1 The rise of “climate-smart agriculture”

The phrase “climate smart” – the mother of all buzzwords – has found its way into climate planning and policy-making, embraced by businesses, governments and multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank and FAO.

Billions of dollars are being spent on research into so-called climate-smart technology solutions such as robotics, AI, net zero dairy, cultured meat and precision farming, including drones, GPS and drip irrigation technologies. While proponents say it will increase productivity, help farmers adapt to the climate crisis and reduce emissions, critics say the phrase ‘climate smart’ has become blanket cover for renaming farming practices harmful.

One of the main proponents of climate-smart agriculture is the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (Aim4C), a joint initiative led by the United States and the United Arab Emirates, which has pledged $4 billion in funding. agricultural innovation to reduce emissions. It is backed by 40 countries and some of the world’s biggest food companies, including PepsiCo, meat giant JBS and CropLife, an association of agrochemical companies. More than two-thirds of its partners are in the United States or Europe, according to a DeSmog analysis, and no groups representing indigenous communities are among its knowledge partners.

Aim4C has no clear plans to slow down or significantly reduce activities such as industrial meat production and the use of fertilizers, which climate scientists say are fundamental to curbing global warming.

“AIM’s agritech solutions are not a 21st century ecological change strategy that benefits all of humanity and the web of life. If anything, it’s more business as usual,” said a spokesperson for the International Climate and Agriculture Coalition, an alliance of activists and civic leaders.

2 technical fixes for the giant methane in food problem

Methane is a short-lived but potent heat-trapping gas that has accounted for about a third of the global temperature increase since pre-industrial times. Livestock – through cattle burps, manure and the cultivation of forage crops – are responsible for almost a third of global anthropogenic methane emissions, which is why scientists are clear that reducing consumption of meat and dairy products in the north is essential to reduce global warming to 1.5. VS

But the aim of Cop27 was not to change the human diet, but rather the diet of cows – to make their burps less gassy.

JBS, Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company, and meat and dairy trade groups were very enthusiastic about the rise of methane-reducing food additives made from ingredients such as algae, ozone, enzyme inhibitors, green tea and garlic.

But the long-term risks and benefits of these emerging products remain unclear, and those currently on the market are only affordable to factory farmers and food companies investing in increasing meat and dairy consumption. and not in its reduction.

Sheep are fed seaweed extract to reduce their methane emissions in Ireland in August 2021.
Sheep are fed seaweed extract to reduce their methane emissions in Ireland in August 2021. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

“At best, these technologies provide cover for large meat and dairy companies to continue overproducing on polluting factory farms,” said Amanda Starbuck, research director at Food and Water Watch.

3 Increasing access to fossil fuel-based fertilizers as a response to food insecurity

The global food system is a heavy user of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, produced in an energy-intensive process dependent on fossil fuels. They are credited with helping to increase yields and reduce hunger, but their expansion has come at great cost to the environment, climate, and human and animal health.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are responsible for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2022 study, which found that reducing their use “offers great mitigation potential” in addition to other benefits for health, the environment and the economy.

Yet reducing synthetic fertilizers was not on the Cop27 agenda, with industry representatives and EU and US officials focusing instead on fertilizer access and “efficiency” – helping farmers to use increasingly expensive nitrogen inputs in smarter ways.

The United States, EU, Norway, Germany and the Netherlands announced $109 million in public funds (plus $26 million in private investment) to expand access and effectiveness of fertilizer to fight food insecurity.

An unmanned aerial vehicle spreads fertilizer on a tea farm at Kipkebe Tea Estate in Musereita, Kenya.
An unmanned aerial vehicle spreads fertilizer on a tea farm at Kipkebe Tea Estate in Musereita, Kenya. Photography: Patrick Meinhardt/AFP/Getty Images

But according to the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri: “Chemical fertilizers do not guarantee food security. Their ubiquitous use sometimes increases agricultural production in the short term, but it creates a longer term dependence on business and trade…the ultimate goal must be to wean them off this dependence as soon as possible.

According to Lili Fuhr, deputy director of climate and energy at the Center for Environmental Integrity, labeling the effectiveness of branded fertilizers as a climate action is further evidence that the industry controls the narrative. “Synthetic fertilizers are just fossil fuels in another form. Fertilizer companies know they will soon be under scrutiny and are trying to shift the focus from production to more efficient use by farmers.

The fertilizer industry, which will directly benefit from the new taxpayer-funded subsidies, is already booming: nine of the largest companies are expected to make $57 billion in profits in 2022, more than four times the 2020 level.

4 Industrial agriculture as the only way to feed a growing population

The industrial food sector presents itself as the only way to feed a growing population. Yet small farmers (less than two hectares) produce more than a third of the world’s food – despite having access to only 12% of agricultural land. Much of the world’s population is undernourished or overweight, suggesting that we are not producing or eating well.

Yet the momentum and money seem to be skewed in favor of industrial agriculture, allowing it to continue to grow and emit. Nearly 90% of the $540 billion in global food subsidies, which play a significant role in determining what food is produced and what we eat, have been found to be “harmful” to the planet – harming health, climate and nature as well as excluding small farmers.

“Grants are a major agent of change. They make it difficult for farmers to make changes and prevent consumer-driven market changes from occurring naturally. It’s not a level playing field,” said Stephanie Haszczyn of the Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return initiative (Fairr).

Low-impact forms of agriculture often receive little or no subsidy. Proponents like La Via Campesina argue that agroecology – a form of agriculture rooted in indigenous and ancestral knowledge that works with nature and local conditions to produce food sustainably, protecting biodiversity and the quality of soils – offers a greener, healthier and fairer viable alternative to big ag.

But neither subsidies nor agroecology were on the Cop27 agenda. “It was very disturbing to see a large contingent of corporate lobbyists influencing the process while small farmers were excluded and drowned out,” said Million Belay, Ipes-Food expert and general coordinator of the Alliance for food sovereignty in Africa. , a great popular movement. “Farmers demanded recognition of diverse and resilient agriculture, agroecology and climate finance, but they came away with very little.

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