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Agriculture is not the same as agribusiness, but that was hard to tell at COP 24.

Agriculture in the climate space is typically a dizzying arena dominated by wealthy donor countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and intergovernmental organizations, such as the CGIAR’s CCAFS program, the World Bank and the FAO’s Mitigation of Climate Change in Agriculture Programme. Then there are agribusiness platforms, government-led initiatives such as the Global Research Alliance and, last but not least, farmers integrated in global value chains, represented by the World Farmers Organization.    

In two years’ time at COP 26, countries are set to make some sort of a political decision on agriculture—what to do about emissions from the sector and/or how to deal with the onslaught of intensified climate events on food security and adaptation. The main outcome expected at this COP on agriculture was to see if governments could agree on procedures and expected outcomes out of five workshops they plan on having before COP 26. These topics include agriculture adaptation, soil carbon, input use and manure management and food security. But what happened was mainly a six-hour talk where several of the “constituent” bodies associated with the agriculture workstream known as the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA) presented what they are doing on agriculture. The real issues—what governments hope to get out of this process and whether New Zealand should be allowed to host a 3-day workshop on livestock for all parties of the climate treaty—were left for informal discussions during the first week. At the end of the week, governments decided to punt all discussions to June 2019 when the subsidiary bodies [Subsidiary body on Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA) and Subsidiary body for Implementation (SBI)] that deal with the KJWA will convene next.

There are potential conflicts of interest with New Zealand wanting to host a 3-day meeting on livestock that need to be addressed. New Zealand has a direct stake (no pun intended) in the outcome of such a workshop and in the final COP 26 decision on agriculture, while the KJWA workshops are part of a multilateral process that should be a level playing field for all governments. It is not clear if New Zealand is proposing to host the livestock workshop identified as part of the KJWA roadmap or an additional one. If the latter, what would the purpose of such an additional workshop would be for all parties in the KJWA? Forty-nine percent of New Zealand’s emissions come from agriculture. By 2014, dairy contributed to nearly half of those emissions as dairy cattle rose from 3.4 million head in 1990 to 6.45 million (tripling milk production during this period). New Zealand’s Fonterra is one of the world’s largest dairy conglomerates and GHG emitters that GRAIN and IATP analyzed in our Emissions Impossible report. Thanks to Fonterra, New Zealand is responsible for nearly 70% of all whole milk powder exports in the world. New Zealand also co-chairs the livestock working group of the Global Research Alliance (GRA)

The GRA was established in 2009 by agribusiness powers such as the U.S., New Zealand, Canada and others at a time when agriculture discussions at the UNFCCC were really heating up. It is a membership-based alliance of 52 countries with the “aim to deepen and broaden mitigation research efforts across the agricultural sub-sectors of paddy rice, cropping, and livestock, and to coordinate cross-cutting activities across these areas.” Its official corporate partners include the Global Agri-business Alliance (with members such as the tobacco giant Philip Morris and the global fertilizer giant, Yara) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). The aim of this research and country collaboration, in large part, appears to be a way to quantify emissions reductions in industrial agricultural production. The GRA co-hosts several meetings around the world, convening and coordinating scientists, academics and other experts around the world on these issues. Their last International Conference on Agricultural GHG Emissions and Food Security: Connecting research to policy and practice took place in Berlin in September and was jointly hosted by the EU and the German government (which currently chairs the GRA). This seems to be a critical forum to watch and engage with, though it isn’t clear how civil society organizations at large can review and comment on the content and outcomes of GRA’s working groups.

Agribusiness has a particular interest in shaping climate policy related to agriculture—one that largely maintains their business model and growth plans while the imperative of the day demands radically different solutions. It is scientifically clear that a focus on further intensification, efficiency, precision and technology, while helpful in reducing emissions per kilo of milk or meat will not reduce overall emissions if the number of animals in production continue to rise at the current rate. With this scale and model of production, the livestock sector will contribute to dramatically overshooting our target of 1.5°C. The irony is that agriculture and all of us have the most to lose with such an overshoot.

Rainfall, heat, cold and extreme weather events are noticeably and increasingly unpredictable in most parts of the world—with severe implications for food growers and for global food security. The industrial model creates further problems as synthetic fertilizers spew nitrogen and phosphorous into water bodies and ecosystems and nitrous oxide (a GHG nearly 300 times more potent than CO2) into the atmosphere. Then, there is the insatiable need for more land and water to grow feed, rather than cycling nutrients and regenerating soils. Solutions exist. There is much research under way that shows regenerative and agroecological practices can help strengthen agricultural systems in the face of climate change and help producers stop off the input addiction that the industrial system has created. But such a change requires an honest conversation about conflict of interest and policy measures that governments need to take in the next twelve years (as per the IPCC) to help food growers make the shift. Food growers trapped in a system where agribusiness dictates the price but expects farmers to bear all the risk has never been tenable. Farmers have dealt with this phenomenon by either leaving agriculture altogether or scaling up to make a profit. Meanwhile agribusiness profits have continued to soar in the last decades. Climate change requires that we face up to this reality and alter our course.

This brings us to the “farmers’ voice” at the climate talks. Who is represented and who is not? At the COP, the World Farmers Organization (WFO) represents the “official accredited” farmers’ voice. The WFO states that it represents 1.5 billion farmers from 54 countries; its members are wide-ranging from the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, to the U.S. National Farmers Union, to the National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi (NASFAM). The GRA, the EU, the OECD, the International Fertilizer Association, the private arm of the World Bank (the International Finance Corporation) and even the World Trade Organization are listed among several high powered WFO partners. However, there are thousands of farmer associations that are not represented by the WFO, nor do they have the resources to engage in a process that by default shuts frontline communities out due to its unnecessarily complicated and technical nature and the high levels of financial and human resources required to engage. Their voices were not reflected in the first workshop, nor are they likely to be in the upcoming workshops of the KJWA.

A 2014 FAO study calculated that there were 570 million farms worldwide, 475 million of them on 2 hectares of land or less. We face a reality where 16 percent of the world’s farms represent 88 percent of the world’s farmland, leaving 84 percent of farms just 12 percent of the farmland. The robustness of this data and mechanisms to monitor these changes over time is one major gap the FAO identified in the study. This is the basic level of information we need to understand the actions that are needed to adapt agriculture to climate change and for the sector to become part of the solution. On December 5, the WFO launched an initiative called, “The Climakers: Farmers Driven Climate Change Agenda.” Supported by agribusiness industry associations such as CropLife, the International Seed Federation and the International Fertilizer Association, this “Climate Change Alliance” is intended to bring “all farmers of the world” together with “relevant stakeholders” to influence the climate negotiations. In preparation for COP 25 next year, the Climakers intend to hold regional workshops in 2019 in Europe, Central/North America, Latin America and Caribbean, Asia/Oceania, Southern and Eastern Africa. But the UNFCCC discussions as they are currently set up are not a welcome space for real input for “all farmers of the world.” It is a closed space (due to political, economic and technical reasons) where global corporations can thrive and where those most affected by climate change remain voiceless. For an agriculture decision in 2020 to be meaningful, substantive and truly allow for agriculture to contribute to the 1.5°C pathway and become climate resilient, the UNFCCC, governments and IGOs must begin today to make a distinction between agribusiness and agriculture (including the food growers that represent 88 percent of global farmlands).

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