The heat is on meat and dairy as a major contributors to climate change, but there was at best limited recognition from the New Zealand delegation to the Katowice UN climate change summit about the enormity of the global food and farming challenges, writes Rod Oram.

We should lead. But we have to catch up first.

The Poles have welcomed 22,000 delegates from around the world to Katowice for this year’s UN negotiations to try to forestall humankind’s climate catastrophe. As unabashed hosts, they are promoting coal and meat, two main causes of the crisis, as essential to their culture and to a low carbon future for the planet.

The coal triggered widespread disdain from delegates because its impact is well known. But the response to the meat was more muted. While knowledge of its contribution to climate change is growing fast, it took a report from three NGOs to point out the chasm between the most and least climate damaging items on the menu in the conference’s food court.

The most carbon-intensive entrée (beef with smoked bacon, 11 kg CO2e per serving) contributes 35 times the greenhouse gas emissions of the least carbon-intensive entrée (cabbage-and-mushroom dumplings).

Overall, the meat-based options offered (4.1 kg CO2e per serving) generate average greenhouse gas emissions more than four times higher than the plant-based meals offered (0.90 kg CO2e per serving). If all the delegates chose meat options during the 14-day meeting ending today (Friday December 14th), the emissions would equal those from burning 500,000 gallons of jet fuel, enough to fly 3,000 people from New York to Katowice.

Remarkably, Katowice is the first annual COP (the UN’s Conference of the Parties to its climate convention) to give prominence to food and agriculture in its inter-government negotiations and the civil society programme supporting them.

Over the previous 23 years, the meetings were dominated by interminable debate over how to cut overall emissions in ways equitable to developing and developed countries. Only with COP21 in Paris in 2015 was an overall architecture finally agreed by all nations on the planet bar two.

Since then food and agriculture have been gaining prominence in climate negotiations. The fact is a large proportion of our nutrition and many of the farming systems we use to produce it are deeply damaging to our soils, water, atmosphere and biodiversity. Moreover, those current systems offer neither food security for all people now, or the prospect of abundant additional food as the human population increases by one-third by 2050.

Thus, such a focus on food and agriculture was long-planned for Katowice. But three reports in one week in October upped the ante:

 – the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change with “high confidence” that changing diets could be an effective climate mitigation strategy;

– a study in Nature, a highly respected peer-reviewed science journal called for major reductions in the consumption of meat and dairy in favour of more nuts, legumes, fruits and vegetables; and

 – the Climate, Land, Ambition & Rights Allliance reported global temperatures could be kept from rising more than 1.5C by limiting individual meat consumption to about two five-ounce servings per week among other agricultural and forestry initiatives.

Two good pieces of journalism on these issues at the time were this article in the Guardian on the Nature paper and changing diets and this one in the Economist on the rise of vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians, which it summarised in this video. As the Economist notes, if cows were a country, they’d be the world’s third largest emitter. 

At the Katowice conference itself, a wealth of events and sessions on food and agriculture have been presented over the past 14 days. Among the highlights was an event on Wednesday titled “Planetary Health: Food Systems Event,” organised by EAT, the UN Climate Change secretariat’s Momentum for Change initiative and the Rockefeller Foundation.

EAT is a Scandinavian NGO determined to help “reinvent the global food system” for the sake of “healthy people, healthy planet,” as I described in an August column. It is heavily backed by the Wellcome Trust of the UK, the world’s largest philanthropic funder of health research, World Economic Forum, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, some major food multinationals and leading organisations of subsistence farmers in some developing countries. EAT’s director of policy is Sudhvir Singh, a young doctor from Auckland now resident in Oslo.

In mid-January another of its projects will come to fruition with the report of the EAT Lancet Commission on Food Planet Health, in conjunction with Lancet, the British medical journal. The goal is to redesign diets to reduce their burden on the health of the planet and people too, since some food in excess and others outright impose medical burdens on individuals and societies.

In addition to the growing wave of civil society action on food and climate, the UN is gearing up too. For example, at last year’s COP in Berlin which was chaired by Fiji, a resolution was passed for a programme of research and practical measures on these issues. It was named the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture, after a famous government agricultural station outside Suva which for decades has trained many agricultural scientists for Pacific nations.

Building on the Koronivia initiative, our government designed the Act!on (sic) Agriculture programme for the Katowice COP and beyond, partnering with France, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Australia. Details of the Katowice programme are here

Speaking in a phone interview from Katowice, our Climate Change Minister James Shaw said he was taking every opportunity in negotiations and civil society events to stress the paramount importance of keeping the rise in global temperature to 1.5c, and that widespread changes in agriculture have vital roles to play in reducing emissions, increasing farming’s resilience to climate change and increasing food production.

He said it was also important that New Zealand farmers and some of their key organisations were well represented in the Katowice events. They had a lot of science and experience to contribute to the work ahead in the Pacific and globally, while also learning at the conference from farmers and scientists from around the world.

While it was difficult to judge from New Zealand how rich these COP encounters were – hopefully some follow up interviews with participants on their return home will help shed light later.

However, I was able to get copies of a number of the agri-sector presentations New Zealanders made. Rightly they described our farmers as innovative, efficient and keen to contribute to the global food and farming goals.

But they described incremental improvements in existing farming systems to slowly reduce emissions and other environmental damage while gradually increasing yields. They argued that as an efficient producer NZ could help feed more people, particularly high value, discerning consumers, and contribute that knowledge to farmers overseas.

However, the examples given of NZ’s international leadership on these issues were to be frank irrelevant given the scale of the challenges. For example, the few 10s of millions of dollars government and business have been spending per year since the Copenhagen COP in 2009 is chump change for one of our leading export sectors with revenues of well over $25 billion a year.

A few of the speakers described changes afoot in consumer preference and food technologies in developed countries. But as far as I could tell there was at best limited recognition from the New Zealand delegation about the enormity of the global food and farming challenges to achieve “healthy people, healthy planet”.

We should lead. But we have to catch up first.

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