Earth Day: Sustainable Food Production Should be a COP26 Priority

From Donald Trump’s twitter spat with world renowned climate activist Greta Thunberg to China’s refusal in meeting net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the world’s largest contributors to climate change are not taking the destruction of our planet seriously.

Young people across the globe took to the streets during the 2019 climate strikes, sacrificing their education, to protest the inheritance of a planet spiralling climatically. Now the UK is responsible for hosting the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, they should prioritise sustainable food production. 

World leaders are due to attend the vital talks this November in Glasgow, although an annual event, it is seen as one of the last opportunities to get nations on track in meeting the 2015 Paris climate agreement. This Earth day marks the five-year anniversary since the signing of the international treaty, which commits nations in keeping long-term global heating within a 2C rise. Emissions targets are seen as one way out of this disaster. With agriculture and other land use contributing next to a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, the need for true sustainable food systems is pressing.

Vegan folk have been ridiculed, labelled as tree-hugging-hippies, for far too long. Yet It is clear that our current consumption trends are wreaking havoc on the natural world. Netflix documentaries, Seaspiracy andCowspiracy, reveal the sheer scale of animal exploitation and its impact on our earth systems. Vegan activists also have the backing of nutritional experts who advocate a largely plant based diet for disease prevention. In his book, How Not to Die, Dr Micheal Greger explains how proximity to veganism is not only good for the planet but for human health too. 

 Governments need to shift from heavily subsidizing traditional livestock and dairy industries which often display harmful farming practices and are out of line with broader environmentalism goals. At the same time cash should be injected into novel environmental solution-based technologies such as vertical farming and lab grown meat, both of which offer much prosect in feeding a growing global population as cultivable land is becoming increasingly scarce.

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Industry giant Knorr has teamed up with WWF to spotlight 50 plant-based foods that provide optimum nutrition while reducing the environmental footprint of our food supply. The Future 50 Foods Report prioritises agrobiodiversity and low-impact farming practices alongside emphasis on nutrient and dietary diversity with an aim of altering consumer food choices; increasing the variety in the foodstuff individuals cook and eat, all the while saving the planet. The report includes beans and pulses, an important crop for soil management, alternative grains that can withstand harsh environmental conditions and wild seaweeds which are already abundant in our waters. 

 Aside from the methane emissions, chemical pollution and extreme water requirement, associated with livestock farming, transport of all food types is a major contributor to CO2 emissions. Buying local produce is not just a mere marketing tactic for community farmers but a scientific answer in tackling climate change. Researchers are dedicated to this battle: The University of Leeds’ Global Food and Environment Institute found the city already has the capabilities to produce nearly half of its calorific demand. The current supply chain would send much of the calories produced in the city elsewhere.

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Outside of agriculture, Boris Johnson has shown contradiction in the conservative commitment to green policy. During the pandemic alone – a Cumbrian coalmine was given the go-ahead; licences for North Sea oil and gas exploration granted; support for airport expansion across the nation presided and the catastrophic failure of the green homes grant scheme within just six months of its roll-out. All of this was despite Johnson’s coronavirus promise to “build back greener”. Running parallel to cuts in overseas aid, knowing that developing nations feel the brunt of a changing climate much harder, sends a clear message about this country’s engagement with the global climate crisis. As the host of COP26, the current UK climate strategy is embarrassing. 

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By moving towards sustainable food production and listening to the science, the UK has an opportunity to lead by example ahead of the pivotal conference later this year. It is clear that the agriculture and livestock industries need to evolve at a much quicker rate than governments are enforcing. As we have seen with the coronavirus response, elected officials have the means to act quickly, food led solutions are out there, now governments need to do the work.