This year’s Wales Real Food and Farming Conference comes just a fortnight after the international climate talks in Glasgow, known as COP 26, which I attended as part of a delegation from the Landworkers’ Alliance and our wider global union, La Via Campesina.  We were there as observers and representing smallholder, peasant agroecological farmers as well as indigenous pastoralists, urban farmers, agricultural workers, as part of the farmers’ constituency.  Much has been written about COP 26 and I cannot hope to sum up everything important about it in one blog post.  But given that the relationship between food, farming and climate change is a key theme of the WRFFC, it feels important to at least share my experience and what I took away from it.

Whilst it felt like a huge privilege to attend, it was also overwhelming and stressful.  Imagine a busy festival or conference, where at any given time there are at least 5 things that you should attend, so wherever you are you feel you’re probably missing something more important.  Add to that airport style security, multiple exhibition centre layouts, hundreds of fossil fuel lobbyists and the subject matter being how to prevent civilizational collapse; and you’ll get the picture of what it felt like to be there.

As an official observer, I had expected to be able to witness the negotiations themselves, as observers had been able to in past years; however, this year observers were shut out of the detailed negotiations.  We were only able to watch plenary sessions (mostly prepared speeches from country delegations) and side events.  Veteran observers told me it was the least accessible COP they had been to.

My first full day there, Wednesday the 3rd of November, was “Farmers’ Day”.  Food and agriculture have had very little attention at previous COPs and whilst this year and this day were hailed as a step change, there was disappointingly little about farming.  The chaotic nature of the event’s logistics added to the disappointment.  We had planned to start the day with a Farmers’ Constituency meeting, but the huge queues to enter the conference venue meant that very few people were able to make it.  Later events that we had hoped to attend in person, were only available online, and the poor WiFi made them very difficult to watch.  Other events were full when we arrived.  Those events we were able to access invited audience questions and then made no attempt to respond.  My colleagues and other observers I met were all as frustrated as I was.  So much for an inclusive COP 26.

I ended the day observing the ministerial plenary on climate finance.  Ministers from Nepal, Grenada, Bangladesh, the Maldives and other vulnerable nations spoke of the dire situations their countries faced and their frustration that previous commitments by wealthy countries to provide $100b in funds for climate mitigation and adaptation, a pitiful sum compared to what is needed, had not been met.  Two thirds of this commitment was via loans, meaning already indebted countries would need to take on more debt to respond to a crisis for which the wealthy lenders, not the borrowers, are responsible.  To say that this is unjust is an understatement.

Across the world, farmers are amongst those on the frontline of climate change.  Even in the relatively benign climate here in Wales, many farmers suffered from storms and flooding in early 2020.  Of course, these effects are even worse in countries with less money and harsher climates.  In Ghana, for example, droughts and floods have destroyed many farms.  When crops fail, it is not just the farmers who suffer, but also those whose food supply depends on the affected farms.  This is being all too clearly demonstrated by the famine hitting Madagascar right now, considered to be the world’s first climate induced famine.  The lack of serious financial commitment for funding meant “Farmers’ Day” only served as a reminder that the fight for climate justice does not end at this conference.

The next day I attended was “Youth Day”, Friday the 5th, and it left me more hopeful.  Not because the high level proposals had improved, but because of those I met fighting for more ambition both outside, in the Fridays for Future marches, and inside.  I interviewed a group of young people who had walked out of Alok Sharma’s speech in protest at his lack of ambition.  He’d patronisingly told them what a good job they were doing and to keep up the pressure on their leaders: as if it was not a disgrace that those just entering adulthood are having to take on responsibility for not letting political leaders destroy their futures.  Later, the same young activists staged a demonstration inside the conference centre highlighting the contrast in how inaccessible the conference was for so many activists and delegates from the Global South and how accessible it was for fossil fuel lobbyists.  

Another highlight was meeting a member of the Bolivian delegation.  Bolivia is one of the few countries to have recognised the rights of nature.  At COP, they were pushing for funds to enable developing countries to adapt to climate change in the form of grants, not loans, and without conditions as well as a dedicated fund for loss and damage (when the effects are beyond the point of adaptation).  This should not be considered aid, it is the climate debt that countries that have grown rich through fossil fuels owe to those suffering the effects.  Indigenous and peasant rights and respect for traditional farming methods were also key demands.

This latter point contrasted strongly with the AIM for Climate agricultural innovation fund being championed by the UK, US and UAE among others.  With large agri-chemical companies among the initiative’s partners and focussed on top down high-tech approaches, we were concerned that it would not empower farmers, but rather lock them into long term reliance on patented seeds, technologies and processes.  Having been denied the opportunity to ask questions and raise these concerns, ETC Group arranged a press conference for the following morning where La Via Campesina (LVC) colleagues could express these concerns.

Saturday the 6th was the global day of action with protests across the world calling for more ambition and real solutions.  In Glasgow my fellow LWA/LVC members joined others in the farmers block on a beautiful, energetic, rain drenched march highlighting the ways in which farming can be a part of the solution.  Although I only joined the end of the march, it felt great to be reminded of all the energy and commitment of the climate movement, after the draining conference centre.

The following Monday we took this protest spirit back into the conference centre with a demonstration highlighting how farmers are on the frontline of the climate crisis.  We called for farmers to be at the forefront of climate negotiations and for a transition away from the current corporate controlled food systems to one focussed on agroecology and food sovereignty.

My last day in the conference centre was Tuesday the 9th, and although not the day’s theme, the lesson I took away from it was about the need to fight for every inch of progress.  At a side event on getting climate finance to the most vulnerable,  I learnt of the absurd barriers and conditions for access to finance.  For example, some funds require 30 years of data as evidence that the problem they are seeking finance to address are related to climate change.  For farmers and others in low income, vulnerable countries, such data often doesn’t exist.  There is a huge gap between the very high need for climate finance and the very low numbers able to access what is being offered.  The call from Bolivia for financial support to come without conditions seemed all the more pertinent.

At an inspiring side event on how indigenous peoples across the world work together to fight for their rights and ensure that they were explicitly recognised in UN processes and documents, it was clear that without their fight, there would be no such recognition.  At COP26, their fight included finance for loss and damage, and recognition of their land rights.  This latter point is particularly crucial in the context of carbon markets and offsetting, championed by rich country governments, oil companies and others as a major tool to reach “net zero”.  Under these schemes, rather than reduce emissions and bring in systemic changes, governments and companies simply pay for carbon to be absorbed, for example through tree planting.  Not only has offsetting been found ineffective when it comes to reducing temperatures, but it also requires a lot of land.  All too often it is done with no regard for the communities already living there.  Here in Wales, rural communities fear their survival as farms are being bought up to offset the polluting activities of others, whilst in the Global South the situation is even worse with indigenous people being subjected to land grabs and human rights abuses.  Although offsetting remains a major part of the plans for net zero, requirements to respect human rights and indigenous rights in particular made it into the Glasgow Pact, no doubt due to the fight by indigenous activists and others.

Other hard-fought wins in the final agreement included references to fossil fuel subsidies (the first time fossil fuels have ever been mentioned in a COP agreement), increased finance for adaptation, specific funding for indigenous people, and more ambitious nationally declared contributions.  These gains need to be recognised even in the context of a woefully inadequate agreement overall, but small points of progress in the face of this existential threat are not enough.  The funds for adaptation are still far from what is needed for countries to adapt.  Calls by developing countries for a dedicated loss and damage fund were rejected by rich countries.  Attempts that we as the Farming Constituency made to have the vulnerability of farmers and the potential of sustainable agriculture recognised were rejected.  The Nationally Declared Contributions, whilst better than in previous years, would still take us above 2 degrees of warming.  In the final plenary, many rich country governments spoke of the need for compromise, but, as the Maldives delegate noted, what is compromise for some is a question of survival. 

Where do we go from here?  The inadequacy of the outcome is not a reason to give up the fight.  Were it not for hard work both inside and outside the conference, it would have been far worse.  Vulnerable countries have called for pressure on wealthy country governments to increase their ambition, and we should respond to that call.  We could argue over whether it is better to work within the existing system; confront it from the outside; or focus on building new alternatives, but whilst we don’t all need to do everything, it all needs to be done. 

As we meet to discuss how to get to a more sustainable food and farming system here in Wales, we cannot forget the urgent global context in which we are having these discussions.  As detailed in a recent report, what we eat in Wales has impacts beyond our borders.  For our fruit and vegetables, we rely on imports from climate vulnerable developing countries, affecting both our own security and the ability of those countries to feed their own population.  To tackle this, we must increase our own domestic production and there will be opportunities to learn from those already doing this.  We must focus on driving down emissions and be wary of greenwashing and false solutions, whether in the form of unproven technologies or distracting market mechanisms.  We must look at how tree planting can benefit farmers and rural communities rather than displace them.  We must learn about better ways of working together whether as farmers or campaigners and ensure that the next generation of farmers are equipped to produce sustainable food in a changing and unpredictable climate.   These challenges – and more – will be discussed in the next three days.

Holly Tomlinson is the Welsh Policy Coordinator for the Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA).

Picture from inside the conference centre, COP26 by Joanna Blundell