Good COP, Bad COP

London, 19 November 2021 - 

Invited by our partners at WWF, GAIN joined CARE, ICCCAD, Club of Rome & EAT to present the FoodForward consortium at COP26. This comes as part ofour collective commitment to continue working together, as former Action Track Chairs of the United Nations Food Systems Summit, to fix food systems within this decade. I was delighted to represent GAIN in Glasgow, together with my colleague Ty Beal. Both of us have a keen interest in the intersection of nutrition, climate, environment, biodiversity and livelihoods, and are closely involved in the work of the GAIN Environment Working Group.

Here are a few reflections following our whirlwind COP experience. 
I ended up joining 54 COP26 side-events over the course of the two weeks. Fifty-four. I'd like to thank YouTube's 1.5x speed playback for making this possible. During my short trip up to Scotland, I was also lucky enough to meet dozens of fellow food systems actors (some for the first time in person), asking them all the same question: are you feeling positive about our progress here?
To be honest, I couldn't tell you that the answer was ever a resounding yes. But as the dust settles on a busy fortnight, I'm starting to see things more optimistically.
Many of the reservations my colleagues expressed were down to a simple criticism levelled at the negotiators, speakers and policymakers: that their commitments lacked detail, specificity, action plans and measurable targets. 
But a two-week conference was never going to surface every solution to the enormous climate challenges facing us. 
And, in fact, a huge amount of work is going on behind the scenes. The high-profile, high-level, hifalutin statements (especially those picked up and dramatised by [inter]national media outlets) are always going to be heavy on lofty promises and light on detail. Do we really even want Boris Johnson to take us line-by-line through an implementation plan, or John Kerry to talk us through his departmental staffing for FY2021-22? Even the NDCs are a sketch, not a blueprint. 

Cop26 sign

But a two-week conference was never going to surface every solution to the enormous climate challenges facing us. 

All of this is OK, as long as the detail is being developed separately. Based on the side-events, more technical discussions, and the projects launched during COP26 (and before, and no doubt after), I am cautiously confident that this is not just blah, blah, blah. We should be engaging with the detail and the substance before dismissing promises as being empty.
This leads on to the second criticism: that they're not listening. I want to acknowledge here that there are certain groups who are still under-represented and go unheard. Small Island Developing States had to shout incredibly loudly to win the attention that they should rightly receive without needing to fight. One wonders which other marginalised groups we will regret failing to acknowledge: micro, small, island and coastal states, or indigenous communities who were not given a place at the negotiating table. Where these communities go unheard, we should do all we can to uncover those voices and give them the platform they deserve. But this criticism also came from constituencies who do have a seat at the table, and who - at least in my opinion - are being heard, loud and clear.
To take two groups close to my heart, I found that both young people and colleagues working in food systems transformation felt somewhat side-lined. In some senses, we were. Our side-events were not attended by high-level members of national delegations or climate negotiators. In truth, they had their hands quite full in the main negotiations, without attending 54 food systems side event and equivalents for every other theme from green buildings through to electric transport.
(As an aside, this is probably my greatest concern about COP26: that it was effectively a summit made up of dozens of mini-summits operating in almost total isolation of each other. Especially in a hybrid, mostly virtual structure, it was almost impossible to break down siloes and bring in new audiences.)
But our messages had made it through. Progress on forests and land use clearly acknowledges the role of agriculture. Methane commitments will certainly require us to consider animal farming. The ClimateShot Action Agenda for Transformative Innovation in Agriculture is a clear step in the right direction. There was also Regen10, financial commitments to support research and innovation for food systems, and plenty of separate promises to co-develop new solutions in partnership with farmers. There were new corporate pledges and philanthropic promises, not to mention huge continued efforts from NGOs and civil society. Moreover, all discussions around building resilience, protecting livelihoods and restoring nature fundamentally do include the food system, in which every single human being on Earth participates.
In fact, I think the feeling of being ignored stemmed from something quite different, which we need to be proactive in addressing. Because writing a wishlist is not enough. We need to participate in fulfilling those wishes. We cannot continue to present the current problems and the ideal end-states to policymakers, expecting them to fill in the huge gaps between where we are now and where we need to be. Making demands will not help us if we cannot paint a full picture of how we see them being realised.
Yes, we all know that we want to end coal and fossil fuels. We all understand that we need to shift to circularity. Petrol and diesel cars, kerosene jet engines, dirty shipping fuels - those all need to go, too. To take the obvious examples in food systems, we want to shift to healthy and sustainable diets. End food loss and waste. Stop producing in ways that damage ecosystems, biodiversity, land and marine life. 

We cannot continue to present the current problems and the ideal end-states to policymakers, expecting them to fill in the huge gaps between where we are now and where we need to be.

But these are not demands that can be realised with a wave of a wand and a click of the fingers. They are not demands that any government or international institution can achieve tomorrow. We also need to consider the unintended consequences of huge transitions. For example, a repeated theme was that animal agriculture (and consumption of animal-source foods) needed to be massively scaled down. But what about the health of billions of people who already struggle to eat a nutrient-adequate diet, or the livelihoods of hundreds of millions who depend on livestock production for their prosperity? (This particular topic, of course, merits a much longer discussion…!)
So, I would feel reassured that we do largely agree on what needs to stop, what needs to change, and where we need to be. The challenge is how we get there. My simple conclusion and call to action is this: we need to participate in creating the change we want to see. 
Our work is not done when we tell them what we want. Our work is not done when they listen. Our work is not even done when they promise to take action. We should take responsibility for that action. We need to paint the full picture, from the broad brushstrokes of the overall vision through to the finest details of a true masterpiece: a food system that provides nutritious foods for all while protecting livelihoods and restoring nature.

My simple conclusion and call to action is this: we need to participate in creating the change we want to see

Andres Gonzales, a sugar farmer speaking on behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Fair Trade Producers and Workers, really expressed this best on one of the first days of the summit. Speaking in Spanish, he called for an end to speeches and nice words. He said that promises are like debts, and called on wealthy nations to pay them. Above all, he said that we can't continue to look to others. We must point the finger at ourselves and say: I will be the one to do it.
The global community is ready and waiting. The UN Food Systems Summit paved the way. COP reinforced the same messages. We all understand and agree that we need to tackle climate change, reduce emissions, protect biodiversity, restore forests and terrestrial ecosystems, fix our oceans, preserve our water supply, improve soil health, and - looking beyond environmental factors alone - lift people out of poverty, end hunger and malnutrition, and tackle social inequities that lead to unfair outcomes for vulnerable groups. We all know that food systems transformation can unlock multiple co-benefits across all of these areas. Double, triple, and quadruple wins.
So, let's find those solutions. Let's take them to governments not as requests and exhortations but as opportunities - to help them achieve their climate goals, protect their people, increase prosperity and bring good health and wellbeing to their nations.

COP26 served as a milestone on the journey to achieve the Paris Goals and gave us new commitments through the Glasgow Climate Pact. The main event may not have focused sufficiently on food systems transformation, but it did give us a platform to build upon for COP27, where food systems deserve not just a single day or even a full week, but rather to be in the spotlight for the entire fortnight. They are a unifying red thread that underpin the progress we need to achieve. Action here is essential if we are to achieve climate targets – which, in turn, is essential if we are to be able to grow and supply safe, affordable, nutritious food. Climate and nutrition are inextricably linked, and food systems are the glue.

COP27 in Egypt must put food system transformation high on the menu. We can’t wait to take new leaps forward between now and then, creating the change that we want and need to see.