The Ruminant in the Room: The Conspicuous Absence of Farming at COP26

Policy makers may have missed the mark at COP26, but agriculture remains a ripe opportunity for reform in the climate fight.

After Sound Agriculture was chosen by one of our investment partners, Leaps By Bayer, to be featured in a video in preparation for the 26th Annual Conference of the Parties (COP26), my excitement for sorely needed agricultural reform was rampant. Certainly, at the epicenter of climate action, sweeping policy changes, and magnanimous billion dollar donations, agriculture would now have a key role in the fight to keep climate warming below the critical 1.5°C threshold. After all, with agriculture accounting for about 24% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally, any meaningful reforms could transform the sector into a major tool for emission reduction. 

Leaving Agriculture on the Table

Agriculture, however, failed to seize the limelight in Glasgow. Of the 10 days of Presidency Program discussions, only one day – Saturday November 6th — was there mention of it. While other meaningful sectors were assessed and discussed during the conference, agriculture was largely left to sideline conversations held adjacent to the summit. Considering the scope and potential of the sector, I feel this was a missed opportunity. 

Land use momentarily broached the conversation during COP26’s Nature” day, during which there was discussion slated for Ensuring the importance of nature and sustainable land use are part of global action on climate change and a clean, green recovery”. The reference to sustainable land use’ left me hoping for a discussion of agriculture, but when world leaders such as President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke on Saturday about the importance of nature,” there was a conspicuous void.

With half of all habitable land dedicated to growing food, any small change in land management could yield large changes in carbon capture goals.

Agriculture is the third largest sector contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions, yet it did not get its fair share of discussion airtime proportional to the potential impact the sector stands to have with appropriate reform. There was a moment of hope in the discussion which came in the form of Policy Action Agenda for Transition to Sustainable Food and Agriculture,” a non-binding overview of a few ways countries can transition to food systems that better serve farmers and the planet. Solutions highlighted included broad ideas such as Invest in agricultural, livestock, forestry, and fishing research and development” and Collect and analyze data”. Further, the verbiage on the agenda was This Policy Action Agenda sets out pathways and actions that countries can take’” not must take.’ Ultimately, the flimsy agriculture agenda is an apt representation of the conference: world leaders concluded COP26 having accomplished much talking and little action.

However, not all credible action is limited to the confines of the COP, and there were some highly encouraging signs outside of the negotiations. For example, the United States did invest $1B to AIM for Climate which promises to invest in agricultural innovation. Right now the fund holds $4B, but compared to the worth of the agricultural industry at $1.109T (of which the US contributes $136.1B), this investment should be much greater considering the potential monetary impact of better regulations and sustainable policy. 

Untapped Potential in the Earth

AIM for Climate and other actions like it do not take advantage of all that the agricultural sector has to offer in the fight against climate change, potential that only international agreements can truly reap. Ideally, COP26 would have produced clear and measurable goals to cut nitrogen use in farmland, created better and more accessible financial incentives to enable farmers to switch to more climate-friendly practices (i.e. cover cropping, wind abatement hedges, no-till farming), or, finally, calculated a fair price of carbon in the US and/​or globally. The latter has been the topic of many debates about the efficacy of a private carbon marketplace in which farmers create carbon credits from adopting sustainable farming practices, some of which have immense potential to capture and store greenhouse gases. Private companies could then theoretically buy credits from farmers to offset their carbon emissions. These climate solutions are paramount in the greenhouse gas abatement conversation but demand more visibility, more funding, and more adopters in order to make a dent in our ever-rising carbon emission curve.

If American farmers were able to cut 30% of their applied nitrogen, then we could expect emissions reductions equivalent to removing 200 million fuel-burning cars off the road.

Protecting forests and biodiversity is important, but the potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through world agriculture is staggering and must play a bigger part in the climate conversation. To put it in perspective, the earth’s surface is 29% land, and of that about 71% is considered habitable (i.e. not glaciers or wetlands). Of habitable land, 50% is used for agriculture—77% is livestock farming, and 23% is cropland. With half of all habitable land dedicated to growing food, any small change in land management could yield large changes in carbon capture goals. Which is probably why innovations in food and agriculture saw a 15.5% year-on-year increase in investment this year — with around $26.1 billion invested. Policy discussions need to follow this trend more closely.

Undeterred Action in the Agriculture Sector

The climate conference is now over, and with it the most conducive forum to make global agricultural reform. That said, we can still take action outside of the conference, and many of us will. As an employee of a venture-backed AgTech company, I believe it is my duty and my company’s duty to move the needle in efforts to bolster agriculture’s potential as a lever for a sustainable future rather than a liability. 

There are many reasons to be hopeful as we look to the future of technological innovation in the agriculture industry. One of the reasons I am proud to work at Sound Agriculture is because we sit at the bleeding edge of the capabilities in nutrient use efficiency and epigenetics. I work specifically with our nutrient use efficiency product, SOURCE, which can help farmers cut up to 50 lbs of nitrogen fertilizer per acre while still achieving or surpassing the yields they would have otherwise gotten. This makes me hopeful. If American farmers were able to cut 30% of their applied nitrogen, then we could expect emissions reductions equivalent to removing 200 million fuel-burning cars off the road. Solutions like these drive positive-trending investment in the industry, and my fervent hope is that in the future, agriculture can take a more central role in climate conversations on the global stage.