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November 2, 2023

COP28: the challenge of making food and farming systems sustainable

The EU says it has reformed the CAP to make it more supportive of farmers’ efforts to protect and restore nature, but environmental campaigners claim the reforms do not go far enough (Photo: Nathan Laine/Bloomberg)

This month’s COP28 conference in Dubai is set to address food and farming issues, but the challenges ahead are broad and complex – from overhauling a dated web of policies, to developing climate and ‘regenerative’ agriculture solutions that support farmers

COP28 president-designate Sultan al-Jaber has promised to make adapting and transforming food systems in response to climate change a priority at the international climate conference in Dubai later this month. Yet, while there is general agreement globally about phasing out fossil fuels in favour of renewables, the concept of “transforming food systems” and how to pay for an agricultural transition remains a work in progress.

Globally, the agriculture sector is responsible for nearly half of methane emissions, two-thirds of nitrous oxide emissions and 3 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions from human activities, found the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in a 2021 report.

These figures “suggest agriculture may be responsible for approximately 15 per cent of current warming levels”, noted a paper published in the scientific journal Nature in March 2023. However, only one-third of countries reference agriculture mitigation measures in nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement, the researchers said.

At the New York Climate Week event in September 2023, al-Jaber criticised the “global community” for not giving “adequate attention to the transformation of food systems”, which was, he said, “crucial” for keeping global heating below the level agreed in international commitments.

In an apparent attempt to correct this omission, al-Jaber is calling on countries to sign the COP28 Declaration on Resilient Food Systems, Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Action and ensure food and farming are adequately addressed in climate action plans. There is also a plethora of events around food and farming planned for the summit.

The Climate Group, a non-profit whose members include 500 multinational businesses, said in a statement that it welcomed “these much-needed discussions”, in particular, the opportunity to link “reducing greenhouse gas emissions, supporting farmers’ livelihoods and protecting water quality and biodiversity”, and the potential to “establish how such transitions can be financed”.

Tackling EU farming

How to finance farmers per se is a thorny issue, and deciding how to pay them to transition to more sustainable systems is complicated.

The EU has set itself ambitious emissions reduction and renewable energy targets, yet its farming policy, as defined by the Common Agricultural Policy, is widely considered as anything but climate-friendly or “regenerative” — the term the COP28 presidency is using to describe what it believes should be the direction of travel for food and farming globally.

“The CAP goes counter to the regenerative transition,” Meghan Sapp, a farmer based in Navarra, Spain, tells Sustainable Views. “The idea behind the CAP may have been good and relevant post-war, but it has become corrupted. We are in a different world.”

Criticism that the CAP has pushed famers to get as much as possible out of the land at the expense of the environment and human health, and has rewarded the biggest landowners to the detriment of smaller-scale farmers, is not new. The EU has reformed the policy over the years to make it more supportive of farmers’ efforts to protect and restore nature, but for environmental campaigners and even many farmers, the reforms have not gone far enough given the extent of the climate and biodiversity crises.

“CAP funding is geared towards agriculture centred on Syngenta and John Deere, not on understanding ecosystems and food production,” says Sapp. The two companies are large producers of herbicides and genetically modified seeds, and of agricultural machinery, respectively.

In September, the World Wide Fund for Nature’s European policy office published a report calling for a “structural transformation” of the CAP that would see it “repurpose” its “budget, instruments and administrative systems” to “support a just transition towards genuine social, economic and environmental sustainability in the farming sector”.

French MEP Pascal Canfin, however, doubts that such a transformation is possible. “The CAP will never be radically changed because it is a legacy policy,” he told a regenerative agriculture event in the European parliament in the same month.

The EU executive and its president, Ursula von der Leyen, insist that “sustainable food systems” are “at the heart of the European Green Deal”, but further reform of the CAP — discussions about which are due to begin next year — are not evoked in the same breath as the EU’s flagship climate policy.

Instead, in 2020, the European Commission published a Farm to Fork strategy, whose implementation rested on a legislative framework for sustainable food systems that appears to fallen off the EU executive’s agenda.

Last month, a swathe of non-profit organisations and academics wrote to the commission demanding it publishes the draft legal proposal before the end of the year to enable the EU to meet its climate objectives and provide “affordable, healthy and sustainable food” for its citizens.

Von der Leyen is under pressure from the centre-right European People’s party in the parliament, of which she is a member, to park any regulation that could mean change for farmers. The final version of the hotly contested Nature Restoration Law still needs to be agreed, and the EPP is running a campaign on social media platform X insisting “European farmers keep struggling with new regulations, preventing them from doing their job – farming!”.

Canfin argued that this pushback is partly of the commission’s own making — instead of attempting to make farming more sustainable through a variety of laws on biodiversity, food and soil, it should have published a single legislative package. “A holistic approach” with “consistency and an integrated narrative” would have made more sense for farmers, he said.

“Food policies are complicated,” says Alison Blay-Palmer, director of the Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada.

“You have international agreements like the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer that are a success, but they deal with a narrow and focused subject,” she tells Sustainable Views. “The green energy transition is more complicated, but it is still relatively easy to agree the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energies.

“For farming and food, a whole systems change is needed based on local knowledge. This is more complicated; it requires people to work across sectors and government departments.”

Farmers’ needs

Despite this complexity, there is growing awareness that something will have to give, as the COP28 agenda shows. Farmers everywhere are on the frontline of the climate crisis as extreme weather events hit with ever increasing frequency and intensity, with potential threats to livelihoods and food security.

“If we are going to not only survive, but thrive as a species, we need to find a way to eat in line with ecosystems,” says Sapp. She adds that this means changing farming practices, but also reducing waste at all levels of the supply chain; educating consumers about where their food comes from, about how to cook and compost, and to eat less meat; and ensuring that supermarkets help rather than hinder farmers.

“It is general practice for supermarkets to have 180-day payment terms for what they buy, but they get paid in an instant for what they sell,” she says.

And farmers will need new kinds of support. “We can’t solve today’s problems using the tools that created them,” she continues. “We need to think about new and different financial models that can facilitate the transition.”

For Canfin, one way to finance change in the sector would be to introduce an emissions trading system, such as exists for other industries, and drive transformation along the “whole value chain” of the food and farming sector.

Blay-Palmer says the key is to start “accounting for the true cost of the current industrialised global food system in terms of loss of local and regional livelihoods, healthcare, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and water and soil pollution”.

“We externalise the costs of industrial farming. We pay for the costs that corporations inflict on our healthcare system. We have a health crisis in richer countries of diseases like obesity and diabetes and cancer. Much of this is diet-related,” she says.

“If companies had to pay for the health impacts of the food they convince people to eat, we would be looking at a different situation. Or if they had to pay for the impacts of the greenhouse gas emissions they emit and the related climate change costs, we would have a different calculus to understand what needs to change.”

Blay-Palmer is calling for governments “to shift subsidies and make our dollars do good”. In the longer term, she suggests “diverting money from healthcare into farmers’ pockets”.

Individuals can play their role in helping to move money from multinationals rewarding polluting farming by “divesting and moving their pension funds and investments to more sustainable funds”, she adds. “This may sound like the politics of the privileged, but it is the politics of workers using their pensions to advocate for sustainable change and to build healthy, fair, local food systems through the existing financial system.”

Selling cow credits

Increasingly, governments and farmers are looking at the private sector to support the transition to more sustainable farming methods.

“Government should set targets to reduce emissions,” but industry should come up with the delivery solutions, says Thomas Hafner, chief executive of Mootral, a British agri-tech company working on reducing methane emissions from cows. “Ideally, governments shouldn’t have to step in with a tax, a penalty or even subsidies,” he adds.

At the UK Labour party conference in October, Hafner sat on a sustainable agriculture panel with Ruth Anderson, the party’s rural affairs spokesperson, to explain his company’s “natural feed product”, which, he says, can reduce methane emissions by up to 38 per cent on commercial farms while increasing animal health and milk yields.

Hafner’s garlic and citrus extract solution is being trialled by farmers, who make their money by selling “cow credits”, carbon offsets based on methane reductions approved by carbon credits certifier Verra’s “verified carbon standard” programme.

“[The solution] costs less than a penny per litre of milk, less than a penny on a hamburger and just about 0.1 of a penny of a cappuccino,” he says, estimating that it would cost £120mn to feed the supplement to every cow in the UK.

“We are careful to whom we sell our offsets so there is no greenwashing, and that we have genuine uptakers investing for the right reasons and using the offsets in the right manner,” Hafner tells Sustainable Views.

In the long term, he suggests “insets”, when a company offsets emissions with a project in its own value chain, not offsets, are the answer. “The offset mechanism is just to get things going,” he says, predicting a future business of “helping companies meet their ESG goals and governments meet their climate goals”.

Eddy Towers, a dairy farmer from near Lancaster, the UK, is feeding the Mootral supplement to his top-quality Jersey cows, whose milk he sells to coffee shops prepared to pay more for a premium product. “We want to be a showcase for other farmers on nature, carbon, areas that are wild, reducing fertilisers, technologies round slurry, and we are looking at electric tractors,” he tells Sustainable Views.

“The CAP incentivised us to hold land and produce commodities for as little as possible,” Towers says. He urges policymakers to think creatively about incentives they can offer to help farmers change course and become more sustainable, including carbon credit markets.

Governments have the choice between “the carrot or the stick”, he adds. “If you are hit with a stick you fight back. A carrot or incentives can move you forward.”

Innovative farming

Carrots are the aim of the $13bn Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate initiative led by the US and the United Arab Emirates. Originally launched by US president Joe Biden at COP26, new investment announcements are expected under the auspices of the initiative at COP28.

AIM for Climate says it has more than 500 members in 54 countries, including 51 so-called “innovation sprint” partners. One of these partners is Boomitra, a company using satellite technology and artificial intelligence to measure soil quality and track its ability to store carbon.

Boomitra, a recent finalist in the prestigious Earthshot Prize, works with more than 150,000 farmers across Africa, South America and Asia, who, in exchange for improving soil quality, can sell — via the company’s marketplace — verified carbon credits to businesses or governments looking to offset emissions. The majority of the revenue from the sale of each credit goes directly to the farmer, Boomitra says.

“Our carbon marketplace enables farmers and ranchers to earn carbon credits by adopting regenerative practices like cover crops and rotational grazing,” Boomitra founder and chief executive Aadith Moorthy tells Sustainable Views in a statement. “These practices boost soil health and increase carbon sequestration, yields and climate resilience.”

As a farmer, Sapp welcomes innovative investment ideas, but urges policymakers and businesses to ensure private sector investments create genuine, sustainable, long-term change for the environment and for farmers.

“We need to ensure funding of 10 to 15 years and have a plan for what happens when private finance ends,” she says. “How do you keep power locally? Can you structure community trusts that take over and ensure local incomes and jobs? How can you ensure private financing doesn’t become a gold rush for land that ends up in private equity funds, disempowering the rural communities you were there to help?” 

A service from the Financial Times