🤝 COP26: How did Regenerative Agriculture Fare?

Policy: The COP26, along with the preceding UN Food Systems summit and UN Biodiversity Conference a month ago, have elevated regenerative agriculture to the high-level discourse of diplomacy, especially with corporate pledges to reduce emissions. In terms of concrete steps, the FAIRR initiative notes, there are no agricultural targets set for reducing emissions on agriculture across the G20 governments. This is all the more troubling because we cannot meet any major climate target without cutting emissions from food production. A top-down approach to public policy has not driven regenerative agriculture, though Prince Charles still remains a staunch advocate and the 4p1000 initiative has brought together a consortium of advocates to promote soil carbon drawdown. Understanding exactly how those attending COP26 view agriculture in the immediate future is key to unlocking perhaps the strongest lever to tackle food security, biodiversity loss, and climate at the same time. As John Fullerton puts it:

Agriculture (broadly defined to include not only cropland, but grasslands, forests, mangroves, seagrasses, kelp forests, and more) is the foundation of all human economies and the key to balancing the carbon cycle. The technology is called photosynthesis. It’s free, and so far, not captured by private interests (beware). There is immense opportunity here, and reason for hope! Where are the natural sequestration acceleration targets, and money pledges to ensure they are achieved? Reducing deforestation is essential but does not count as an increase in sequestration.

In reviewing recent American and international commitments related to agriculture made during COP26 and after the preceding summits, I found the following:

  • Agreements on methane emission reductions are the major “win” of COP26, but what that means for agriculture remains intentionally hazy.

Two major agreements were agreed on related to methane during COP26: the first being a formal Global Methane Pledge spearheaded by the US and EU and the other being a joint statement by the US and China on enhancing climate action that specifically recognizes the importance of addressing methane quickly. The United States does cite agriculture in its methane reduction initiatives: “the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to significantly expand the voluntary adoption of climate-smart agriculture practices that will reduce methane emissions from key agriculture sources by incentivizing the deployment of improved manure management systems, anaerobic digesters, new livestock feeds, composting, and other practices.”

When considering the complex role methane plays in both climate change and our agricultural system, this could be a red herring for efforts to change our agricultural industrial system. Such language and myopic focus on methane - though important and guided by rigorous diplomacy - will lead to an increased use in feed additives that can reduce methane emissions, for example, rather than a focus on growing a grass-fed, grass-finished livestock economy that sequesters carbon, increases biodiversity and so forth. Methane reduction is politically palatable, in my non-politico opinion, because it is all about “buying time”(perhaps this is why we have had 26 COPs...) and gives the illusion of progress instead of re-working subsidies and changing how our food is produced.

  • The U.S.’s Climate Smart-Ag programs rely on funding new technology and employing some sustainable practices but lack a coherent vision.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s attendance at the COP26 summit demonstrates how important the current administration feels our food system is to climate issues, yet taking American leaders' perspectives and actions at face value means grappling with a careful balance of competing priorities. Vilsack’s signature work on climate so far, the Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Partnership Initiative, has received hundreds of public comments and is still at its infant stage. We shall see if the USDA adopts a practice-based or outcomes-based approach to incentivizing practices, and if the carrots of subsidizes and voluntary, incentive-based approaches are matched with any sticks. If anything, the emphasis in both this initiative and The Growing Climate Solutions Act on trusted technical assistance is quite promising to me.

However, looking at a cross-section of commitments and proposals from the Biden administration on agricultural conservation and “climate-smart ag” provides some clarity. In the White House’s statement on the Build Back Better framework, the focus is on converting "130 million cropland acres per year, representing as many as 240,000 farms" to climate-smart ag and beefing up funding for conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program ($4B), Environmental Quality Incentives Program ($9B), and, potentially, paying farmers upwards of $25/acre to plant cover crops. As Professor Jesse Jenkins of Princeton notes, this is a revision of $31B upwards for agricultural conservation programs from earlier drafts.  As with any bill, this is all still subject to congressional approval and politicking. 

On the flip side, President Biden unveiled the AIM4C declaration in partnership with the UAE, which promised $4B for agricultural innovation aimed at reducing emissions - again focused on finding technological solutions with climate-smart ag and “innovation sprints” as opposed to promoting regenerative practices. The US also committed to investing $5B to support Feed the Future to reduce poverty, hunger and malnutrition globally. $5B will be spent as well to strengthen food systems in the United States, including $3b to drought resilience and response, relief for market disruptions, animal health, and school nutrition programs. Whether this approach is comprehensive or scattered remains to be seen.

  • When push comes to shove at COP26, agroecological principles and pathways to sustainable smallholder farming take a back seat.

The unfortunate reality I perceived in following COP26 is that smallholder farms, who produce over 30% of the world's food needs, are not requisitely valued. Without these voices, it will be difficult for a top-down, public policy-based approach to incorporate regenerative agriculture at a global scale. And perhaps regenerative agriculture will never win that battle in that way. COP26 pledges on agriculture focus almost entirely on technological development and “innovation gaps”, as this scathing analysis notes, and make little mention of food sovereignty, equity, or shifting away from industrial food production. While technological innovation is essential to improving on-farm practices for all, issues like market access for sustainable goods, technical assistance, and better aligned incentives are much more actionable today to make an immediate climate impact. Instead what we might end up seeing are “reforestation” programs that decimate biodiversity and large scale agricultural monocultures with a “limited” carbon footprint due to technological innovations, yet have no natural co-benefits.

Though I feel the US took the lead on the issue of addressing food systems in tandem with greenhouse gas emissions, the approach is focused on industrial agriculture and punting any systematic change down the line. It makes me question what the role of public policy is when it comes to promoting regenerative practices. Recently, Sri Lanka banned the use of chemical fertilizers, yet had to reverse course due to awful yields. Mexico, in a related move, is on a path to ban GMO corn and glyphosate by 2024. While Mexico’s plan could go better than Sri Lanka’s, I wonder what continued price surges in nitrogen fertilizers will do to regenerative adoption and the use of more organic amendments or biological fertilizers. Fertilizer company Yara’s CEO stated we risk an extreme food crisis given the price levels for fertilizers and fertilizer production simply isn’t there to meet farmer demand.

While painful and the result of our fifty-year binge on chemical fertilizers, perhaps this can lead to long-term investment in change from producers and intermediaries because it makes industrial production in its current form untenable and unprofitable. If commodity prices continue to rise to the point that consumers cannot meet them, organic and regeneratively grown products become all the more attractive. Given that synthetic N fertilizers account for 2.4% of all global GHG emissions, there’s a real opportunity here - regardless of whether it made the center stage of COP26 or not. I see many corporate actors taking tentative first steps in this direction - and we will dive into the topic of corporate regenerative commitments in the coming weeks.


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