The ‘solutions’ for food emissions alarm experts after Cop27

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In a way, this year’s UN climate summit in Egypt was all about food. In the context of crop failures and food insecurity, due to extreme weather conditions and diminishing diversity, as well as rising food prices exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine and the tight grip of corporate monopolies, COP27 included the first ever day dedicated to food and climate.

Scientists are clear that interconnected climate, environmental and food crises require bold transformative action to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases and improve resilience. Food systems produce a third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock farming is the main driver of Amazon rainforest loss, while industrialized food production is the biggest threat to 86% of the world’s endangered species.

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But at COP27, as in the debate more generally, the interests of multinationals dominated. Activists and NGOs say the food industry’s fingerprints were all over the advertised solutions, including a range of technologies and incentives they say will do little to reduce Big Food’s huge climate footprint, reduce related diseases to food or increase food security and climate resilience in the long term.

“From treating cow burps to robotic weeding, none of the false solutions offered at COP27 come close to stopping industrial food production from being an engine of planetary destruction,” said Raj Patel, food justice scholar and author of Stuffed and Starved . “Agribusiness and governments have offered a series of patented patches designed not to transform the food system, but to keep it the same.”

There’s still a lot to uncover from COP27, but here are some of the food ‘solutions’ that experts have told the Guardian they are most alarmed about:

1 The Rise of ‘Climate Smart Agriculture’

The phrase “climate smart” – the mother of all buzzwords – has found its way into climate plans and policy-making, adopted by companies, governments and multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank and FAO.

Billions of dollars are earmarked for research into so-called smart climate technology solutions such as robotics, artificial intelligence, net zero dairy, cultured meat and precision agriculture, including drones, GPS and drip irrigation technologies. While proponents say these will boost productivity, help farmers adapt to the climate crisis and reduce emissions, critics say the phrase “climate smart” has become a catch-all cover for rebranding harmful farming practices.

Related: Reaching ‘peak meat’ by 2030 to tackle climate crisis, scientists say

A key proponent of climate smart agriculture is the Agricultural Innovation Mission for Climate (Aim4C) initiative, a joint US-UAE led initiative, which has pledged $4 billion in agricultural innovation to reduce emissions. It is backed by 40 countries and some of the world’s largest food companies, including PepsiCo, meat giant JBS and CropLife, an association of agrochemical companies. More than two-thirds of its partners are in the United States or Europe, according to an analysis by DeSmog, with not a single group representing indigenous communities listed among its knowledge partners.

Aim4C has no clear plans to significantly slow or reduce activities such as industrial meat production and fertilizer use, which climate scientists say are key to curbing global warming.

“AIM’s agritech solutions are not a 21st century ecological change strategy for the benefit of all humanity and the web of life. Rather, this is more business as usual,” said a spokesman for the International Coalition for Climate and Agriculture, an alliance of activists and civilian leaders.

2 technical fixes for the gigantic food methane problem

Methane is a short-lived but potent heat-trapping gas that accounts for about a third of the global temperature increase since the pre-industrial era. Livestock – through livestock burps, manure and the cultivation of forage crops – is responsible for nearly a third of global anthropogenic methane emissions, which is why scientists are clear that reducing meat and dairy consumption in the North of the world is essential to reduce global warming to 1.5C.

But the goal of COP27 was not to change the human diet, but rather that of cows, to make their burps less gassy.

There was a lot of excitement from JBS, Nestle, the world’s largest food and beverage company, and meat and dairy trade groups about the boom in methane-reducing feed additives made from ingredients like algae, ozone , enzyme inhibitors, green tea and garlic.

But the long-term risks and benefits of these emerging products remain unclear and those currently on the market are accessible only to industrial farmers and food companies who invest in increasing meat and dairy consumption, not reducing it.

Sheep are fed seaweed extract to reduce their methane emissions in Ireland in August 2021. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

“At best, these technologies provide a cover for large meat and dairy companies to continue overproducing on polluting factory farms,” ​​said Amanda Starbuck, director of research at Food and Water Watch.

3 Increase access to fossil fuel-based fertilizers as a response to food insecurity

The global food system is a heavy user of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, produced in an energy-intensive process that depends on fossil fuels. They are credited with helping to increase crop yields and reduce hunger, but their expansion has come at a huge cost to the environment, climate, and human and animal health.

Synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers are responsible for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2022 study, which found that reducing their use “offers great mitigation potential” in addition to other health, environmental and the economy.

However, cutting back on synthetic fertilizers was not on the COP27 agenda, rather the focus of industry representatives and European and US officials was on access to fertilizers and ‘efficiency’, helping farmers to use more expensive nitrogen gas in smarter ways.

The US, EU, Norway, Germany and the Netherlands announced $109 million in public funds (plus $26 million in private investment) to expand access to fertilizers and efficiency to fight food insecurity.

An unmanned aerial vehicle spreads fertilizer on a tea plantation at Kipkebe Tea Estate in Musereita, Kenya.

An unmanned aerial vehicle spreads fertilizer on a tea plantation at Kipkebe Tea Estate in Musereita, Kenya. Photograph: Patrick Meinhardt/AFP/Getty Images

But according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri: “Chemical fertilizers do not guarantee food security. Their pervasive use sometimes increases agricultural production in the short term, but creates a long-term dependency on guilds and trade…the ultimate goal must be to wean them off this dependence as soon as possible.”

Branding fertilizer efficiency as climate action is further evidence that industry controls the narrative, said Lili Fuhr, deputy director for climate and energy at the Center for Environmental Integrity. “Synthetic fertilizers are just fossil fuels in another form. Fertilizer companies know they will soon come under scrutiny and are trying to divert attention away from production to more efficient use by farmers.”

The fertilizer industry, which will directly benefit from new taxpayer-funded subsidies, is already booming: Nine of the largest companies are projected to make $57 billion in profits in 2022, more than quadruple from 2020.

4 Industrial agriculture as the only way to feed a growing population

The industrial food sector presents itself as the only way to feed a growing population. Yet small farmers (less than two hectares) produce over a third of the world’s food, despite having access to only 12% of agricultural land. Much of the world’s population is undernourished or overweight, suggesting that we are not producing or eating well.

Related: ‘An Act of Rebellion’: Young Farmers Revolutionizing Puerto Rico’s Agriculture

However, momentum and money appear to be biased in favor of industrial agriculture, allowing it to continue to grow and issue. Nearly 90% of the $540 billion in global food subsidies, which play a large role in deciding what food is produced and what we eat, have been deemed “bad” for the planet, harming our health, climate and nature, as well as excluding small farmers.

“Subsidies are an important driver of change. They make it difficult for farmers to make changes and prevent consumer-driven market changes from happening naturally. This is not a level playing field,” said Stephanie Haszczyn of the Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return (Fairr) initiative.

Low-impact forms of agriculture often receive little or no subsidy. Proponents such as La Via Campesina argue that agroecology – a form of agriculture imbued with indigenous and ancestral knowledge that works with nature and local conditions to produce food sustainably while protecting biodiversity and soil quality – offers a valid greener, healthier and fairer alternative to big agriculture.

But neither subsidies nor agroecology were on the COP27 agenda. “It was very disturbing to see a large contingent of corporate lobbyists influence the process while small farmers were excluded and stifled,” said Million Belay, Ipes-Food expert and general coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, a great grassroots movement. “Farmers have sought recognition for diverse and resilient agriculture, agroecology and climate finance, but have walked away with very little.”

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