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COP28's focus on food and Canada's dilemma

In the pursuit of a greener future, Canada faces the challenge of reconciling its rich tradition of food production with the urgent need to reduce emissions

Setting aside all controversies, COP28, the global climate change summit organized by the United Nations, commenced in Dubai last week and will span two weeks. Notably, this year, Dec. 10 will be dedicated to discussing food and water, a decision driven by a compelling rationale. The food industry and agriculture collectively contribute to a staggering 31% of human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on our planet, encompassing everything from farming practices to food waste. Essentially, one-third of the greenhouse gases responsible for escalating global temperatures result directly from food production. Given the substantial impact of the food industry on emissions, it is not surprising that COP28 has chosen to prioritize this sector.

During the initial weekend of COP28, a declaration on food garnered support from 134 countries, representing a population of 5.8 billion individuals and accounting for more than 75% of all emissions stemming from global food production and consumption. Notably, this coalition includes major players such as the United States, China, the European Union and Canada.

Climate advocacy organizations are urging the assembled global governments at this year's United Nations COP28 climate summit in Dubai to make a resolute commitment to reduce emissions from the global food sector. The conference host has pledged to prioritize discussions on agriculture.

READ: Canadians' food habits change amid climate concerns

The declaration itself outlines a comprehensive approach to address climate change within agriculture and food systems, in preparation for future COP conferences. It underscores the importance of inclusive engagement at the national level to integrate these systems into various strategies aimed at reducing gas emissions. Additionally, it calls for the revision of agri-food policies to support activities that enhance multiple aspects, including greenhouse gas reduction, resilience, and sustainability. The declaration also emphasizes the need for increased financial support from various agri-food sectors to adapt and transform these systems, along with promoting science-based innovations and local knowledge to improve productivity and resilience. Lastly, it underscores the importance of a fair and transparent multilateral trading system, anchored by the World Trade Organization, in addressing these global challenges.

These objectives are indeed aspirational but well-considered for the betterment of our planet. Canada's endorsement of this declaration should not be considered overly contentious. However, contentious situations may arise when interest groups selectively interpret these declarations to promote a specific narrative against animal-based protein. Conversations about the intersection of food and climate often revolve around the question of whether humans should reduce their consumption of meat and dairy products.

For Canada, this presents a significant challenge. In the case of beef alone, Canada ranks as the 11th largest producer globally, boasting 60,000 beef farms and feedlots, contributing $21.8 billion to the gross domestic product at market prices. Canada also ranks as the 6th largest pork producer globally, and government-sanctioned quotas worth over $30 billion support animal-protein production, including chicken, turkey, eggs, and dairy. Supply-managed sectors represent nearly 20% of all cash receipts in the country. The stakes are undeniably high for Canada, and decarbonizing our food economy must become a priority in the years to come.

READ: Sustainable shopping: Where do we go from here?

Adding to the pressure on our livestock industry is the Global Methane Pledge, launched at COP26 two years ago, which commits countries to reduce their methane emissions by 30% by 2030. That pledge was renewed this week in Dubai. Over 100 years, methane is approximately 20 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide. Food systems are responsible for a staggering 53% of global methane emissions, with roughly two-thirds originating from livestock production, including sources like cow belches and the management of manure. This necessitates the adoption of more biodigesters enhanced manure management practices in wealthy countries and improved animal feed for more environmentally friendly digestion in the rest of the world. 

That said, while Canadians are willing to contribute to climate efforts, it must not compromise the cultural and traditional significance of food. Using rhetoric like "planet-warming food" employed by anti-meat advocates is borderline disrespectful. Encouraging consumers to consume less meat for the sake of the planet may not be well-received, especially when over 91% of Canadians regularly include animal proteins in their diets.

As we have seen with carbon taxing, governments should prioritize incentivizing the food industry to adopt greener practices rather than relying solely on punishment to alter behaviour. Taxes can have inflationary effects, even if they are subsequently eliminated, particularly in the realm of food. Most importantly, the negative connotations associated with taxing can demotivate individuals from becoming better environmental stewards. Ottawa is currently learning this lesson the hard way.

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