Not only Xi: sustainable nutrition is the big no-show of Cop26By Benedetta Annicchiarico

COP26 has been a memorable edition, if only for the absence of big names from the roundtables: agriculture and nutrition, responsible for a third of global emissions, have been left out. The world’s metropolises promise to transform global food systems, but the path ahead remains difficult without inter-national concerted action.


The 26th chapter of the COP is heading toward its final days. It has been a memorable edition, between the presence of thousands of protesters in the streets of Glasgow and the absence of big names from the roundtables. Chinese president Xi Jinping’s decision not to attend has caused great controversy, but what should worry us most is the lack of conversation on some of the most pressing aspects of the fight against climate change: sustainable agriculture and nutrition did not make an appearance on the official schedule nor in public statements by political leaders and civil society.


And that’s saying something: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the top scientific authority when it comes to global warming, has estimated that food systems produce about 30% of total global emissions. Production, distribution and conservation of food, especially when animal-sourced, release great quantities of methane, a gas 80 times more effective than CO2 in trapping heat. And the damage goes both ways: each one-degree increase in the global average temperature causes an estimated loss of 3-7% in some of the world’s most produced and consumed food staples like maize, wheat, rice and soy.


Despite the exclusion from the official program, the challenge of sustainable nutrition was accepted in side conversations. Twenty-six nations, out of the 197 represented at the COP, signed a pledge to de-carbonize their agricultural policies. Unfortunately, those among the signatories are mainly countries of the global South, and only India and the United Kingdom make an appearance as two of the greatest agricultural emitters. Missing in action are the USA, the EU, Indonesia, Brazil, and, obviously, China. Subnational entities, riding the wave of the sustainability prize awarded to Milan for its work on food policy, have once again shown to be a step ahead when it comes to nutrition: 84 cities and regions of the world signed the Glasgow Declaration on Food and Climate, promising to promote agricultural innovation as a tool against climate change.


That very Declaration admits that a systematic change in agricultural policy requires action that is integrated and multilateral, just as the food systems they wish to affect. As virtuous and innovative as cities may be, national governments remain the key decision makers upon which the international order rests. Agricultural policies in particular are some of the most vertically integrated policy areas, as shown by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, or the high level of federal regulation in the United States. Leaving the responsibility of transforming international and interconnected food systems on the shoulders of farmers, individual cities, or small groups of nations will hardly set us on track to reach the SDG and the Paris targets. Only three years are left before the end of the UN’s Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016-2025): it is high time that sustainable nutrition be ranked among the top priorities of the national and international agenda for ecological transition.

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