What about food and agriculture in COP21?

A few days ago, a new 32 page draft climate deal was published. The deal is an outcome of the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) 21 in Paris, in which 200 UN member states agreed that urgent global participation, cooperation and respect is required to tackle one of the greatest threats to human society and our planet.

Celebrations at COP21, with President Ban Ki Moon in middle. (Source: windpowermonthly.com)

However, as one would expect with any global deal, the fact that 200 government officials have agreed on something does not mean that the whole world does. In a recent blog post by One Billion Hungry, they offer eight different perspectives on the climate deal, ranging from ‘the best chance we have to save the planet’ to a ‘fraud’.

This diversity of perspectives in the aftermath of COP21 got me thinking…What about food and agriculture in COP21? 

I did a quick Ctrl+F on the document, and this is what I found:

There is no explicit mention of food and agriculture in the entire document. There are a few footnotes about food, often subsumed in broader debates on productivity, but the actual body includes:

  • 3 mentions of food (‘food security’ and ‘food production’ x2)
  • 0 (yes, zero) mentions of agriculture 
  • 0 mentions of farmer 
  • 0 mentions of soil, despite it being the UN International Year for Soils.

This is contrasted to: 50 mentions of mitigation, 85 mentions of adaptation, and mentions of resilience.

I have issues with this. Clearly.

First, the silence on food and agriculture in COP documents is familiar – previous COPs have also had very little focus on food and agriculture at the policy level. I find this deeply unsettling, especially seeing as industrial agriculture accounts for around 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, a lack of inclusion denounces the everyday, tireless work of smallholder farmers, grassroots campaigns, civil society movements and humanitarian interventions that grow, distribute and enable access to food around the world.

Via Campesina: International Farmers Movement. Just one of the global campaign organisations promoting indigenous agriculture. (Source: viacampesina.org)

Second, it completely undermines the fact that this year, agriculture and food have been recognised in COP21 proceedings, with a day-long  Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA) devoted to addressing how we will grow, feed and distribute food at present and in a climate-uncertain future.

As Slow Food states:

“The text of the agreement mentions neither sea nor air transportation, nor agriculture, though these are three of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases….Instead [agriculture] is often referred to in the margins, within the solutions for adapting to climate change. However, this sector represents 20% of all GHG emissions. As agricultural organizations often remind us, this sector is certainly a part of the problem and the first victim of climate change, but it is also a part of the solution.

What is even better is that agro-ecological agriculture and agro-forestry not only diminish the volume of CO2 in the atmosphere, but they also nourish people at the same time, thanks to the soil’s increased fertility. This was enough to trigger passion in the politicians, notably from France, who see in this area the way to compensate for man-made emissions.”

Third, while terms such as mitigation and adaptation are incredibly useful, they are still ‘jargon’ that only policy experts and scientists understand. The words we need to use to communicate with individuals across boundaries, cultures, disciplines are ‘food’, ‘farmer’, ‘soil’, ‘agriculture’. They are all universally known, and connected to our lives.

Another useful way of communicating is video. Maybe, despite the lack of references to food and agriculture in the COP21 deal, there are videos on the UN website which disseminate information?  Well, yes, if you call a short 1.30 minute snippet sufficient:

With all the above in mind, I want to spend the rest of this blog speaking about the progress that was made at COP21 in relation to food and agriculture. Here goes:

First, the LPAA actually touched on topics outside of the dominant ‘profits and yield’ narrative. Soils, ecosystems, food waste, indigenous and smallholder rights, consumer empowerment and diet change were all topics discussed.

I particularly like this. It brings the global (often paralysing) questions of how we feed people and protect the environment down to the local, visible and accountable level – to the soils beneath our feet, to our homes and communities, and our own responsible behaviour.

As a blog post by the World Resource Institute states:

“Yes, the food lost near the farm or wasted near the fork has a lot to do with climate change…if food loss and waste were its own country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter—surpassed only by China and the United States”

Food waste as a global GHG emitter (Source: World Resources Institute)


The LPAA was also a platform for the dissemination of visual communication around food, agriculture and climate change. 

A picture speaks a thousand words.

Take climate change itself: most changes are incremental, until they reach tipping points, so we are often ‘blind’ to these. It is much easier to comprehend climate change, or be spurred into action, if you are given something tangible and visible to act from. Chasing Ice is a case in point, a documentary that used time lapse photography to document the melting of our world’s glaciers. The success of the documentary is indicative of the power of visual communication around climate change.

At the LPAA,  an infographic about climate change and food insecurity was shown from the Met Office and the World Food Programme.  The infographic visibly shows how, if we both adapt to and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation to food insecurity (the availability, access and nutrition of food) will outpace climate changes by 2080. This is compared to a ‘business as usual’ approach in which no adaptation or mitigation will result in exponential increases in food insecurity, mainly in Africa and Asia, by 2050 and 2080.


Food insecurity and climate interactive infographic (Source: Met Office)

The infographic clearly shows that one cannot effectively achieve mitigation to climate change without adaptation, and vice versa. With this in mind, it is positive to know that most UN member states have included agriculture in both their mitigation targets (80%) and adaptation strategies (64%). However, it is important to note that many of these targets are conditional, relying on funding and institutional support. Sadly, most of this conditionality applies to the countries that will be most vulnerable to food and agricultural insecurity, such as those in Africa, Asia and Latin America.


Source: CGIAR 


One way to tackle a lack of financial capacity is through initiatives such as the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)’s Adaptation for Smallhoolder Agriculture Programme (ASAP). The ASAP formed another focal point of the LPAA.

While I am usually quite cynical of multilateral programmes and their reliance on ‘tick the box’ rhetoric, but having worked on an ASAP progress report with the Overseas Development Institute earlier this year, I am actually very supportive of this programme.

Working in more than thirty countries, the ASAP “channels climate finance to poor smallholder farmers so they can access the information tools and technologies that help build their resilience to climate change”.

National Ministries for agriculture, finance and development are urged to include climate change adaptation into policies, and invest in ‘soft’ measures to combat climate vulnerability (e.g. empowerment, capacity building, education versus ‘hard’ technical and infrastructural short-term measures). The risk here is that, if governments do not want to cooperate in this, progress is stifled somewhat.

The good thing is that ASAP also works incredibly closely with existing local and regional governance bodies. Local factors such as gender, class, social mobility and ethnicity can therefore be factored into the design and delivery of technologies, and by using existing networks and infrastructure there is less risk of failure.

Overall, smallholder farmers are at the centre of climate negotiations and adaptation in food and agriculture. It is just a shame that the same can’t be said for the COP21 climate deal.


Moving away from specifics, I have a few conclusions to make:

I will admit that the COP21 document’s mere existence is a success in itself, even if it is lacking. The UN uses a ‘one nation, one vote’ system, meaning that just one vote against the agreement would have caused the whole climate deal to be lost. So, it is a hugely promising statement that 200 governments worldwide all agreed on action.

Furthermore, it is also a major feat for climate activist groups and individuals, who consistently and peacefully protested throughout COP21. Global protests succeeded in changing the mindsets of governments attending COP 21, and foster hope and support for the future of democratic climate action.

However, going back to the initial aim of the COP21 deal: to foster global participation, cooperation and respect; in the way the voice of civil society has not been given a space in COP21 formal proceedings or documents despite their significance, the same applies for food and agriculture.

This includes respecting the power of the words themselves, as shared common values across the world, but the potential for sustainable and equitable choices around what we grow and eat to become a major part of any climate solution.


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