Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

After COP, do we need a different story?

Post COP26, Anna Cura asks if ambitious language can turn into practical action

By Anna Cura

18th November 2021

Over the past couple of weeks in Glasgow, there has been lots of talk and painstaking negotiation, but not enough attention has been given to food and agriculture, compared to other sectors. This is despite 40% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions coming from agriculture. So the question, for me, is how to turn this around and tap into the potential for food to fix the planet – a phrase I am hearing more and more.

In my work with FFCC (and previously with the Food Ethics Council), I have seen so much activity which is already paving the way for new forms of agriculture and food distribution. Organisations like Food in Community in Devon who are finding local farmers and producers to provide meals to locals, and Food Works in Sheffield who are encouraging residents to become producers through their Grow-a-Row initiative, and Locavore in Glasgow who are using a social enterprise model to kick-start markets for community food. Across UK countries, organisations like these are collectively building a new story of food and agriculture and creating new frameworks necessary to create transformation in food systems. They are forming a network of interconnected community food systems that celebrate local produce and give access to healthy food. They are nurturing people’s connection to food, to each other, and nature. And they are doing something fundamental to change the way we interact as a society – generously sharing knowledge and creating a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among those that engage with their offer and within the community food sector.

There is a chance to rethink many of the ways that the food system works by tapping into existing solutions.

What feels exciting to me, is the potential for the food sector to shift the story towards more equitable resource redistribution. There is a chance to rethink many of the ways that the food system works by tapping into existing solutions developed over centuries by indigenous and local communities. Mutually supportive trading of sustainably-produced food could be prioritised to meet regional shortfalls, while also strengthening community-level production and markets, rather than further investing in trade that may undercut domestic standards. Ultimately, supply chains could be diversified and shortened to ensure communities can produce more of the healthy and nutritious food they need.

So with all of this potential for change bubbling up all around, it is interesting to reflect on what actually happened at COP26. On Nature and Land Day, 45 governments and 95 businesses committed to “create sustainable agriculture and land use”. The language agreed is interesting. Pledges speak of sustainability which implies solutions need to be long-term. Agriculture, land use, deforestation, and biodiversity loss are explicitly connected, which highlights the need for coordinated work across sectors. The phrase ‘protecting and restoring nature’ implies that nature has value in its own. And, in addition to language signals, there were also financial commitments. The UK promised more than £600m towards reducing the climate impact of forestry and agriculture both domestically and abroad.

Yet, despite the signalling and promises, many questions remain. It is as yet uncertain how money will be spent, how priorities will be chosen or how citizens, producers, and communities across the UK can shape solutions to work at a local level. There is clearly a great deal of work to be done to hold some governments to account, for delivering their promises and raising their ambition, post COP26, and ensure that promising language turns into action.

What if our story is much less about growth and much more about a community of people who are already working together to bring about change?

The prevailing narrative at COP26 is still focused on growth, new technologies, innovation, and the need to produce more to feed more. It is hard to imagine a world where growth doesn’t lead to further extraction of energy and resources – the very things that should be reduced. But what if we tell a different story? What if our story is much less about growth and much more about a community of people who are already working together to bring about change with all the potential for a better society that could bring?

As I reflect on the energy and activity that I see around me every day coming from organisations like Food in Community, Food Works and Locovore, I am struck by the opportunity in the ‘what next after COP’. UN envoy Mark Carney said: “The money is here but that money needs net zero aligned projects and there's a way to turn this into a very, very powerful virtuous circle and that's the challenge.” What if £10m of pledged funds were to go to community-level horticulture and agroecology? What if research and innovation were producer and community-led? What if the sector focused time and energy on creating new routes to market?

If we can turn ambitious language into practical action like this, we have a chance to tell a different story of a food system which is fully integrated into people’s daily lives and in harmony with nature – and that is surely one we would all like to hear.