COP27 Was Billed as the First “Food COP.” Did it Deliver?

Big Ag’s influence was evident in a final text that crowded out small-scale farmers’ demands.

Pakistan’s devastating floods — which displaced some 7.9 million people — pushed the country toward an unprecedented food security crisis. In the Horn of Africa, sustained drought has left more than 18 million people facing severe hunger. In small island states from Vanuatu to Dominica, frequent cyclones tear through entire crops of yam, rice and other staple foods — often, along with countries’ entire GDPs.

These nations — which contributed little to the global climate crisis — bear its most brutal impacts. And vulnerable smallholder farmers are right on the frontlines. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the agriculture sector in least-developed, and low- and middle-income countries already absorbs approximately 26 percent of the impact caused by climate-related disasters. Yet, “food has been overlooked for many years in the climate discussion,” said Laurence Tubiana, one of the key architects of the Paris Agreement and CEO of the European Climate Foundation (ECF), at the recently concluded climate talks, COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

That has finally changed.

Women harvesting crops in Sindh, Pakistan. Smallholder farmers in developing nations are among those facing the worst brunt of the climate crisis. Photo courtesy of Asian Development Bank.

This year’s climate summit was the first COP to host over 200 food-focused events, four pavilions, and an entire day dedicated to agriculture and adaptation, recognizing that even as food systems are the victims of climate change, they contribute a whopping one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, with food and livestock production, fertilizer use, deforestation, transport, and food waste as the main drivers.

And when the COP27 text (known as the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan), was finally agreed upon on Nov. 20, food was – for the first time – formally included, through the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA), which was set up in 2017 to advance discussions on the role of agriculture in the annual climate talks. (The goal being to ultimately have some “policy coherence on food…across decision-making forums.”)

Despite accounting for about 33 percent of emissions, food systems as a whole receive a minuscule 3 percent of public climate finance, and only 1.7 percent of climate finance goes to small-scale farmers in developing countries.

At COP27, grassroots advocates called on negotiators to recognize not just the threats to food and farming, but also that certain food systems are a treasure trove of climate solutions. “Family farmers play a key role in adaptation and mitigation,” said Ma. Estrella Penunia-Banzuela, Secretary-General, Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA).

“We can phase out fossil fuels, but we can’t phase out food, so we have to transform food systems,” said João Campari, global leader of WWF’s food practice.

Ahead of the COP, the AFA, along with other groups representing 350 million small-scale producers and family farmers around the world, had issued an open letter urging leaders to shift away from fossil fuel-based industrial agriculture and put their “weight behind… more sustainable food production, including agroecological practices.”

“The expertise we have accumulated over generations, and the conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is that diversity is key to food security. Growing a wider variety of local crops, mixing crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries, reducing chemical inputs, and building strong connections to local markets builds resilience,” they wrote.

Faith leaders, too, came out strongly in support of a more holistic approach to food systems to achieve climate goals. Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, Archbishop of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, called for a paradigm shift to “integral ecology;” Archbishop Nicolas Thévenin, Apostolic Nuncio to Egypt and Deputy Head of Delegation of the Holy See to COP27, emphasized the importance of supporting diversified and traditional cultivation practices.

The final COP text, which, in a breakthrough at the eleventh hour, included a deal to set up a new loss and damage fund, recognized the “fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger.” However, much to the disappointment of many food and farming advocates, solutions proposed by small-scale farmers – such as agroecology – had been wiped from the text.

Oliver Camp, Senior Associate for Nature Positive Actions for Healthy Diets at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) called the Koronivia text “disappointing”, “reductive” and “blinkered.” The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) issued a statement expressing “dismay” that negotiators did not widen the Koronivia mandate to fully address “sustainable food systems” and left out small-scale farmers’ demand for climate adaptation finance. By most accounts, the summit fell well short of establishing a framework for true transformation of our food systems.

Campaigners were quick to point out a possible reason: The number of delegates representing Big Ag had more than doubled at the UN climate talks since last year.

“[COP27] continues to prop up a large-scale extractive model of industrial agriculture,” said Lim Li Ching, Senior Researcher at Third World Network, denouncing the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate initiative, launched by the United States and United Arab Emirates to increase investment in “climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation” as an effort by a historical polluter and oil producer to “hijack climate action.”

Critics of Big Ag say that agribusiness has little incentive to upend the status quo. The four largest grain companies recently clocked record profits, while meatpackers’ profits jumped 300 percent during the pandemic, they point out. At COP27, fertilizer behemoths such as Syngenta and Yara International were promised additional funding to further the reach of their programs.

Now, the expansion of carbon markets and offsets into land and farming poses another threat, say grassroots food sovereignty groups such as ETC Group and La Via Campesina, and think tanks such as the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. They’ve long labeled unregulated carbon offsets as a “false solution” that benefits corporate interests rather than small-scale producers, and gone so far as to describe it as a textbook example of climate colonialism.

In summarizing COP27’s outcomes, GAIN’s Oliver Camp shared on Twitter that “this may be a case of losing the battle but winning the war.”

“Koronivia isn’t the be all and end all. Nor is the final text,” he wrote.

Others, like Matt Adam Williams of the UK’s Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) agreed. “A COP is not just about the texts and negotiations that come out if it. It’s about creating momentum,” he said.

For the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, a solid next step towards attracting more climate finance for food systems transformation would be countries including food systems funding needs in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and ensuring that their domestic food and agricultural policies are in line with their climate goals.

The Alliance estimates that the transition to sustainable and climate-resilient food systems will need $300 billion to $350 billion a year through 2030. That kind of funding is eminently achievable, as one speaker at their side event pointed out, when you consider that Apple Inc. alone generated $365 billion revenue in 2021, and that currently, global subsidies to agriculture amounts to around $611 billion every year, much of it entrenching destructive impacts on climate, biodiversity, health, and resilience.

Although smallholders’ demands were crowded out at COP27, grassroots groups will continue to leverage the momentum created at the summit, pushing for the defunding of industrial agriculture and for investment in agroecology as a climate solution. “Farmers have the solutions, but need utmost and direct support to scale these up,” said AFA’s Ma. Estrella Penunia-Banzuela.

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