Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Align finance and policy for real action

Dr Jim Scown takes stock of COP commitments for farming

By Dr Jim Scown

22nd November 2021

In the post COP26 collective stock-take, many people, including me, are moving on from being angry that food and farming was largely absent from the main talks, to working out how we can capitalise on the opportunities that did open up in Glasgow. The question now is: what clear actions can governments, civil society and businesses take to drive the urgent changes needed across the four nations of the UK?

So, let’s look at some of the commitments made in Glasgow. As part of the headline pledge to end tropical deforestation and begin reversing it by 2030, the UK has committed £500 million to protect five million hectares of rainforest. Twenty-eight nations (accounting for 75% of the trade in products that threaten forests, such as beef, soya, cocoa and palm oil) have committed to The Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade (FACT) Roadmap to support trade that does not cause deforestation. Similar promises have been made before, but if successful these pledges will have a big impact on the chances of keeping global heating closer to 1.5C.

Integrated solutions like agroecology will help deliver emissions reductions that meet, and even exceed, the UK’s net zero strategy.

Meeting these promises means addressing the ways farming in the UK can cause deforestation in the tropics. Recent research, commissioned by FFCC, shows the UK’s contribution to tropical deforestation from soya production can be eliminated by moving to pasture-fed farming systems. This removes demand for the soya currently imported to feed pigs and chickens in more intensive operations. Stocking cattle and sheep in lower densities on the land also reduces methane emissions and helps the UK’s dominant grassland landscapes store more carbon. And using livestock to manage nutrients as part of mixed farming systems means synthetic nitrogen fertilisers can be phased out, eliminating the nitrous oxide emitted by their manufacture and use. Integrated solutions like this will help an agroecological farming sector to deliver emissions reductions that meet, and even exceed, the UK’s net zero strategy. 

For the first time, reference to a ‘just transition’ was included in the COP26 agreement. This inclusion is vital, though long overdue. Dedicated individuals have been working to transition their businesses and communities to more resilient and sustainable models for many years. In our work at FFCC, we regularly meet farmers and growers across the country doing this essential work. Our recent Land Unlocked tour shone a light on many different examples including low-input farming in the Brecon Beacons; modern mixed farming in the Cotswolds; nature-based solutions that grow healthy food while supporting wildlife in Cambridgeshire; and grassland livestock systems in Northern Ireland.

Future farm payment schemes should be based on an outcome-based model, not a land-based system.

These farmers, and many others like them, can help achieve the UK’s emissions reduction commitments. But to provide for nature, climate and health, while creating jobs and making a fair living for themselves, they need support. Future farm payment schemes should be based on an outcome-based model, not a land-based system, to ensure that farmers and growers are supported with public money that rewards good practice, whatever their farm size.

As Minette Batters said earlier this month, ‘we’ve got to drive that financial resource back into the soil.’ Climate finance commitments made at COP can help meet this challenge. As a global financial centre, the UK has a leading role to play. More than 450 banks came together at COP26 to form the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. These institutions have, in Mark Carney’s words, ‘committed to managing their assets, which total more than $130 trillion, in line with achieving 1.5C.’ Another eye-catching commitment was the Agricultural Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM4C) initiative, with £4 billion of public sector investment promised for global agricultural innovation and research over the next 5 years. The UK will invest £38.5 million in agricultural science and development research centres around the world.

This money needs to be directed where it is most needed. At FFCC, we will be working to ensure that investments in UK agriculture align with promises made at COP26 (on mitigation, adaptation and collaboration) and that financial commitments made in Glasgow can translate into positive actions on the ground. As part of this, we will be mapping pathways for different farm businesses (across different landscapes) to help define a path for transition. And, as my colleague Anna Cura explained in her recent blog, it’s important not to forget the power of properly funding community-led projects to make healthy food available for all and support positive change across the food system. 

The Glasgow pledges made on deforestation, finance, and a just transition are a start. But, the transformative potential of an agroecological food and farming sector for climate, nature and health is yet to be fully grasped. Nature-based solutions have the power to turn agriculture from a carbon-source to a carbon-sink, while supporting species abundance. And all this could be achieved across the farmed landscape, while growing healthy and nutritious food for all and keeping food production at the heart of land management across the four nations.

Alok Sharma’s COP presidency continues for another year. In that time, we will be working with partners to put sustainable food, farming and land use on the agenda in COP27.