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December 1, 2021


COP26 and inducing real changes in agriculture


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The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, the United Kingdom, or COP26, is described as a last-ditch effort for nations to act promises and efforts to delay the cataclysmic impact of climate change.


Despite urges from world leaders  — which Associated Press described as the use of "end-of-the-world rhetoric… in an attempt to bring new urgency to sputtering international climate negotiations" at the start of COP26  — there remains "a glaring disconnect between what some called "inflated, rehashed pledges" and genuine progress on reducing fossil fuel emissions," Agence France-Presse reported experts as saying.

Furthermore,  the issue of transforming food systems appears to be absent from discussions, Food Navigator highlighted. "We're still not seeing food high enough on the political agenda," remarked Ruth Richardson, executive director of Global Alliance for the Future of Food.

This seems to be the case as governments were expected to pledge urgent action and investment to make farming more sustainable and keep nature from further harm. The Independent noted the UK government's failure to talk about cutting meat and dairy consumption although it acknowledged the importance of reforming the production and consumption of food. Drastic cuts in meat and dairy productions worldwide are said to potentially slow down global temperature rises to 1.5C.

With one more international event to get nations to be more serious in their climate commitments, the call for real changes in agriculture persists.

A recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is titled "A Multi-Billion Dollar Opportunity: Repurposing agricultural support to transform food systems" — but FAO opined that "current agricultural support policies" are holding the world from fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals and "the goals of the Paris Agreement". Nevertheless, it believes "there is still time to repurpose agricultural support to drive a transformation towards healthier, more sustainable, equitable and efficient food systems."

Long before COP26, strong changes have already been demanded on governments. However, it is still the question of whether some climate actions are plausible.

Take meat consumption for example: certain proponents hold the notion that eating less meat may save the planet. A case in point: The exclusion of meat and dairy consumption could mean decreasing global farmland use by more than 75%, and a vegan diet may be "the single biggest way" to reduce one's impact on the environment, "not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use," said research lead Joseph Poore of the University of Oxford.

Not surprisingly, much of the world would remain unconvinced of removing meat from the menu. By 2030 — a notable year for countries' climate actions — global meat consumption is expected to rise by 14% by 2030, "compared to the base period average of 2018-2020," the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2021-2030 stated. "Protein availability from beef, pork, poultry and sheep meat is projected to grow 5.9%, 13.1%, 17.8% and 15.7% respectively by 2030."

What this also means is that some agricultural production systems are likely to stay for now — the matter of transformation being connected to the will of governments and industries, and in the consideration of meeting market demand.

Set against these and other key factors, formulating and implementing real changes should not only entail proclaiming lofty goals at the world stage; real changes are also solutions that are realistic and can be applied soon.

Instead of arguing, for instance, ending beef production and consumption, how about finding ways to make them more sustainable? Given how beef production is often linked to significant methane emissions, the use of seaweeds to feed cows (to cut methane emissions from the animals) has caught much attention in recent times. Additionally, industry players can consider existing measures provided by the industry and its partners (such as Alltech’s E-CO2  tools and services to help measure and improve environmental performance). The one takeaway is, if you can’t stop consumers' insatiable hunger for meat, cows can at least be reared responsibly at a lower price for the environment.

At the fundamental level, the onus rests on the meat production industry to initiate real changes instead of waiting on their respective governments to act. Emphasising this point, a partnership between JBS, the world's biggest meatpacking company and Royal DSM was announced at COP26 — the former will use DSM's Bovaer feed additive that can cut up to 90% of methane emissions. 

An international platform like COP26 should not just be a domain for politicians to mull and present climate goals, but an event where industry players can push through urgent actions — perhaps even more quickly than occasionally reluctant world leaders.   

Very importantly, real changes, whilst grounded in pragmatism, should also continue to improve the sustainability of production systems already in place.

- Terry Tan, eFeedLink

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