Copenhagen for Eaters

December 18, 2009

As ten days of complex climate negotiations come to a close, leaving some us with a serious “Copenhangover,” we compiled a quick run-down of the role that food and agriculture have played in the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen.

As ten days of complex climate negotiations come to a close, leaving some us with a serious “Copenhangover,” we compiled a quick run-down of the role that food and agriculture have played in the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen.

December 14

USDA says yes, it is that bad

malnourishmentUSDA releases a report on the Impact of Climate Change on U.S. Ecosystems. The data predicts severe drought, livestock deaths, new and more vigorous pests, grain and oilseed crops that mature faster, and changes to the nutritional content of food and animal feed due to an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. If the future of food production in the US looks anything like what’s already taking place in some parts of rural China and elsewhere in the developing world, it’s clear we have some immediate work to do. Get visuals of the global situation here (including the diagram above, which represents the estimated global number of malnourished children due to short-term climate change).

Slide show: Voices from the edge of climate change (more than half are farmers, herders, and fishermen) >

December 15

Farmers and activists take to the street on Agriculture Action Day

protestersMore than 150 peasant farmers traveled to Copenhagen as part of La Via Campesina, an international organization working for a peasant’s movement. They were joined by over 500 activists who called for politicians to “change the food system, not the climate!”

Protesters shut down a gas station, dumped garbage painted green outside the headquarters of a large Danish supermarket retailer, and convened outside the Danish Meat Council to respond to industrial meat production. “We are not begging for carbon credits or other trade based solutions,” said Henry Saragih, the international coordinator of Via Campesina. “We advocate a diverse food system that supports local markets and ultimately promotes food sovereignty.” 

Dairy farmers agree to capture methane

cow uddersU.S. Secretary Tom Vilsack (this week’s star of the show) made public an agreement with the American dairy lobby aimed at reducing the industry’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25 percent over the next decade. (Livestock are currently responsible for nearly a quarter of American methane emissions.) How will dairy farmers do this? The main solution proposed is using anaerobic digestion to capture methane from cow manure. Only two percent of the large dairy operations that could capture methane are currently doing so. However, according to an industry group, farms with fewer than 100 cows (77% of the dairy industry) are unlikely to be able to afford the technology.

Prince Charles chimes in

prince charlesThe Prince of Wales showed up in Copenhagen to talk about…you guessed it…farming! The long-term proponent of organic food and farming (Charles has his own estate farm and nonprofit organic brand) gave a passionate speech about the link between global deforestation and agriculture. Here’s a morsel:

“Through more effective use of vast areas of degraded land, we could feed and fuel a growing population and keep the forests. But, ladies and gentlemen, it must be genuinely sustainable agriculture that helps to empower local communities and small farmers.”

December 16

A draft is born

Two days before the talks were set to wrap up, a draft of the agriculture portion of the Copenhagen agreement got out. The muckraking blog La Vida Locavore published the complete document, which was full of promising language about recognizing “small and marginal farmers, the rights of indigenous peoples and traditional knowledge and practices” and the relationship between “agriculture, land degradation and food security.”

copenhagenIt was still unclear whether or not the document would include agriculture offsets. Similar to the proposed Waxman-Markey “cap-and-trade” bill here in the US, an international carbon market focused on agriculture would make food producers eligible to earn carbon credits for certain practices like no-till and cover crops. Capped industries (like steel mills, energy plants, etc.) could then buy these credits, thereby offsetting their official greenhouse gas emissions.

For two differing views on carbon trading see:
* The Environmental Working Group’s report, Crying Wolf: Climate Change Will Cost Farmers Far More Than a Climate Bill
* The Story of Cap and Trade from Annie Leonard, who brought you The Story of Stuff

New money for research

On Wednesday, the US joined New Zealand (the instigator) and 20 other nations pledging $90 million toward a new global research alliance with the explicit purpose of studying emissions from farming. Agricultural sources account for at least six percent of all U.S. emissions and 14 percent of emissions worldwide (although some say much more), so this could be crucial data to uncover.

riceSkeptics such as the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, for example, expressed concern in a recent statement (PDF) that the research would “duplicate the pitfalls we’ve already seen within the U.S. agriculture research agenda, which… spends billions of dollars on genetically engineered seeds that largely benefit transnational corporations …The loss of traditional knowledge and seed varieties in the Global South is a much more urgent crisis, and much more crippling to the world’s capacity to address climate change.”

December 17Agriculture offsets written back in

By Thursday, proposals to subsidize soil carbon storage with carbon offsetting schemes were back in the draft for good — much to the chagrin of sustainable farming advocates. As the Food First blog put it:

“The proposals would allow wealthy countries to buy carbon credits… instead of reducing emissions at home. The inclusion of agriculture in [the carbon trading scheme] is extremely problematic — transaction costs to participate in the program are high, giving structural advantage to large-scale industrial technologies like GM monocultures.”

Wrap up

We can’t think of a better way to conclude this wrap-up than with this comprehensive opinion piece by Paula Crossfield over at Civil Eats. Her point-by-point analysis of the issues at hand — including the difference between sustainable no-till practices and their chemical-dependent cousins, the role of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the USDA’s plans, and the increasing interdependence between food production and ethanol — is a must read for all sustainability-mined eaters.  


Photo of protesters by Mark Malijan, Investigate West. Photo of “fair and ambitious” demonstration by Dave Sag. Photo of rice field by IRRI Rice.