January 14, 2022

COP26 Diary: When will the conference acknowledge the positive role of essential farmers, ranchers, foresters and fishermen?

In December 2009, I attended COP15 in Copenhagen, representing California agriculture on behalf of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a delegation of other cabinet members. During that meeting, it became painfully clear that the discussion around climate change was moving rapidly forward but without any inclusion or realization that agriculture was going to be one of the central areas of impact in a world with significant shifts in weather patterns.

At COP26 this year, it was alarming to see that not much has changed. The opening statements by U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres, Prince Charles and Richard Attenborough listed what must be dealt with in order to reduce emissions and curb the rise of global temperatures. Missing, again, was any sense of comprehension for how the global agricultural food systems are performing or how we will deliver food, feed and fiber to a demanding world under climate-related mitigation regimes.

Agriculture’s collaborative role in building resilience across the planet must go hand-in-hand with the strategies to adapt to climate change. The future of mankind starts with an abundant supply of food, water and energy. Leaders, activists and the public cannot forget this part of the equation.

This missing voice of on-the-farm experience has driven our Solutions From the Land team to show up over the past six sessions of COP and advocate for inclusion into these climate deliberations. It is our SfL contention that today’s agriculture is providing many of the clearly-needed solutions to mitigate climate change: carbon sequestration, habitat protection, resource utilization, renewable fuels, nutrient-dense foods and job creation.

With each new COP, we continue to work hard to introduce and promote this sustainable vision for agriculture. Along with a handful of agricultural organizations, UN Food and Agriculture Officials and other aligned non-governmental organizations, the farmers, ranchers, fishermen and foresters of the world are beginning to raise their concerns and voices as they realize that non-farmers, non-ranchers, non-fishermen and non-foresters are planning and plotting our future—or our demise.

Solutions From the Land has released its 21st Century Agriculture Renaissance report which helps align the vision of a better world framed by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals with the solutions to be found through agriculture. We have observed that the SDGs will not be accomplished if agriculture is doing poorly in the decades ahead.  Quite the opposite—agriculture needs to be thriving.

The negative focus on agriculture as the ‘problem’ instead of agriculture as the ‘solution’ complicates the platform for mitigation, adaptation, transformation and resilience. For example, the pronouncements for methane emission reduction regularly allude to animal agriculture and specifically to the dairy industry at a time when that industry has been making great progress on modifying feed, manure management for energy creation and other soil amendments for fertility enhancements.

Part of the challenge for agriculture is the lack of understanding of just how dynamic the 21st century toolbox has become. As many new technologies mature, the options and opportunities for transformation accelerate. That’s why the voice of agriculture needs to be heard so that those making the plans for climate action are not relying on outdated perceptions of what is actually happening on the farm and in the laboratories. New science and new thinking is delivering a cascade of improved solutions. In many ways each COP is a “show and tell” opportunity for industries and civil society to demonstrate the latest and best strategies and technologies.

One area of concern that has garnered significant attention is the alarming level of unsustainable deforestation over recent decades (and centuries). The promising commitments of nations to stop the decline is a good step forward, while efforts to reverse the decline with afforestation and reforestation strategies creates many new opportunities for employment, traditional and novel wood products, renewable energy generation and proactive wildfire reduction.

As one expert mentioned, there needs to be a reward for forest stewards, not just a pat on the back. In Papua New Guinea, a tiny nation with tremendous biodiversity —7 percent of the world’s species of plants and animals—there are plans underway to conserve and upgrade over a million acres of forest. In the United States, ranchers and farmers are looking to initiate similar large landscape projects in Florida and in the headwaters of the Colorado River.

These models begin by convening all the stakeholders across a region in order to build consensus around “win-win” strategies and proposals. In the case of the Colorado River, the stakeholders represent an enormous spread of interests, politics, policies and promises. But the threat of inaction due to analysis-paralysis speaks to the complicated nature of reaching multi-benefit solutions. There is never a one-size-fits-all answer, but there are good processes that can deliver benefits to all. As more and more projects are put in place, the ‘proof of concept’ successes lead to scalability, replication, inspiration and hope.

Riding the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow each morning to attend COP allowed for a sweeping glimpse of this historically rich nation and its pastoral landscape. Autumn colors have faded and leaves are falling. Pastures are green with sheep and cattle dotting the passing hills. A Christmas tree farm, a vegetable patch under frost-protective netting, new plantings of winter wheat and a few golf courses all need tending. Morning temperatures are in the 30s and there are no signs of drought or flooding here.

We were fortunate to join an informal, bilateral meeting with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and a group of Scottish farmers and UK agricultural leaders to discuss how they are dealing with changing climate patterns and with the proposed COP mandates and schemes developing each day—in many cases behind closed doors without the presence of land stewards and producers. Not surprisingly, the agricultural leaders in the room had many of the same concerns and complaints. These farmer leaders were able to give us a sense of the perennial challenges and unprecedented pressure farmers and ranchers, big and small, endure.

And yet there was a sense of optimism that if we can continue to share our vision for 21st Century agriculture and the accelerating pace of solutions and new thinking, we can begin to develop the kind of momentum that leads to transformative progress and success across a broader wishlist of human needs and goals. We were all appreciative of the scope of leadership and understanding that Secretary Vilsack brings to the conference.

It’s time to acknowledge the positive role of agriculture. The capacity to pivot during the pandemic and the unprecedented resulting food chain disruption realigned much of the dynamic structures of farming, ranching, fisheries and the processing/distribution infrastructure in place to feed the planet. The essential services needed to provide food to an always hungry world are perhaps more appreciated today than at any time over the last half century.

Public officials and politicians increasingly have lost the institutional knowledge about agriculture’s pressures and needs, and are becoming less able to understand the industry that they regulate. Regulatory good intentions for animal welfare, environmental priorities and trade restraints are causing havoc and unpredictability that are as damaging as erratic weather. Increased costs of production without increasing market prices are putting the squeeze on many growers, forcing consolidation or downsizing.

When was the last time our world was not in crisis? Statistically speaking, the world has never had fewer wars, more predictable abundance of food, more people out of poverty and suffering from scarcity and hunger as a percentage of total population, more people with access to knowledge. And yet we can witness, predict and pinpoint areas of famine, squalor, drought, catastrophic flooding, locust plagues.

At conferences like COP26 we can describe a world in crisis or a world of opportunity and progress. No one is saying that we can’t improve. Everyone is saying that we must collectively move towards adaptation and resilience to address the multiple challenges facing humanity.  These are not necessarily new battles, but for the most part, old and painfully recurring lessons that we never seem to fully solve.

One difference is that we are armed with a dynamic, growing box of tools, technologies and innovative solutions to some of these biggest problems. When people speak about a glass half full or half empty, they fail to ask about how much can be poured from the pitcher.

In 1978, when I started farming, it was an exciting time for fruit and vegetable growers as we were just starting to shift our irrigation systems from furrow to sprinklers to drip tape. In 1938 when my just-retired farmer neighbor started farming (as a 13-year-old), he was driving a team of horses to plow his fields. He can still tell you the names of his three horses: Dolly, Baldy and Clod. He told me that the neighboring Japanese vegetable growers liked to borrow Dolly because she was a smaller horse and had smaller hooves and didn’t step on the plants when they cultivated. Precision agriculture has been around for a long time—it just looks different today. How we farm, what and where we might farm has changed tremendously.

What has not changed is the overlooked fact that most of the people of the world do expect to eat every day, and the dwindling number of actual producers of food as a percentage of population have to increase their productivity to meet the needs of a growing global population. What should be an easy equation is lost on the minds of the billions of human beings who have nothing to do with how their food, fiber and fuel supply is produced, but expect to consume that productivity without interruption.

So when the almost always well-intentioned, non-productive activists say that “agriculture” uses 80 percent of the world’s developed water supply, or emits 10 percent of greenhouse gasses, one has to wonder what planet do they live on because they are the majority users of the water and these critical resources that sustain their lives every day. As I fly over England from Scotland and look down on the patchwork quilt looking green landscape, it’s easy to imagine a time long ago when there was nothing but forest with no signs of the presence of an unusual animal that somehow figured out how to reap a more predictable food supply from the land and increase his numbers.

So much of the world’s food supply comes from temperate regions, and the thought of moving agricultural areas to accommodate shifting climate zones is a logistical nightmare. The experts—farmers, ranchers and foresters—who will actually get the job done must organize themselves to anticipate how they will adapt to pronouncements of catastrophic climate change. The non-productive folk—those with the suits and ties—will do well to listen, assist and support the producers who are struggling to operate against the man-made and natural odds.

Why should agriculture be a focal point for COP26 and all future COP events?  Because whether or not weather shifts, the challenge to feed an estimated global population of 9 billion souls is no small task. The essential endeavor to live within our means on this planet is predicated on the collaborative innovation that comes from understanding what’s in the pitcher and honestly assessing just how full or empty that cup might be. I believe that here in the early part of the 21st century, the pour is much more robust than the fear peddlers want us to know. Cheers!

A.G. Kawamura is Owner/Partner of Orange County Produce LLC in Irvine, Calif., and Co-Chair of Solutions From the Land, a non-profit organization that strives to implement climate-smart land management practices and strategies. He is the former Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and a member of the Western Growers Board of Directors.