Animal Agriculture Was Critically Ignored at COP26—But Why?

At COP26, writer Alex Lockwood said one thing was abundantly clear: Animal agriculture is still too taboo to talk about critically at climate negotiations.

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Nothing better sums up the failures of COP26 than the long queues in the food hall for high-emission meat dishes, not least the beef taco.

At every food outlet, delegates were informed of their food’s emissions footprint. At the Scottish Larder counter, the meat haggis was labeled as 34 times worse for the climate (3.4 kilograms of emissions per serving) than the nutritious and healthy pearl barley stew (0.1 kilograms per serving). Yet thousands of delegates—people working to address the climate crisis!—chose the climate-wrecking option.

Worse than such an egregious exercise of “personal choice” was this: although the food system is responsible for at least 25 percent of all emissions, it was addressed in less than 0.1 percent of discussions. Agriculture’s prominence in COP negotiations was hundreds of times less than it should have been.

Why is animal agriculture still taboo in climate negotiations? We know it has taken 26 COPs just to have “fossil fuels” mentioned in the final text, so what chance cows? Yet for so many country and organization pavilions in the Blue Zone not to have a single event addressing food or agriculture in their 12-day programs seems unbelievable. Nor was there a separate “food” day in the Presidency Program. What’s going on?

“It really does feel like the cow in the room,” Sabrina Ahmed, Campaigns and Policy Officer at The Vegan Society told me. “It’s not that we’re lacking the solutions to address food and agriculture but there’s still so much reluctance to have that conversation in the first place.” 

Reasons range from the pragmatic to the existential, all apparently embedded in a global agricultural system too complex to unpick. That appearance benefits Big Ag and needs to be addressed. So after attending COP26 and speaking to animal advocates at the conference, here’s what I believe are the main reasons for animal agriculture’s continued omission from climate negotiations.

At COP26, the Weight of the Global South’s Multiple Crises Was Just Too Apparent

For those living in the Global South, poverty, hunger, environmental disaster, and war, along with the felt impacts of climate change, are overwhelming. To take just one example: while the planet mourns 5 million deaths from COVID-19, the Global South mourns 5 million deaths each year from using unsafe fuels for cooking. How is it fair to ask the 2.6 billion who don’t have access to safe cooking fuel to also stop cooking animals? Many argue it isn’t. So in the context of global climate negotiations, ending animal agriculture is just not on the table.

The Global North Appears “Sensitive” to Global South Issues at a Cost

“Livestock” supports the livelihoods and food security of around 1.3 billion people, while family farms manage 75 percent of all agricultural land. Around 500 million pastoralists rely on animals as assets and food, their first defense against vulnerability. But per capita, meat consumption is much higher in Global North countries. The Global North portrays itself as “sensitive” to the reliance on animal agriculture in developing countries to avoid facing its own animal agriculture addiction. In addition, this “sensitivity” is a deflection from the insensitive betrayal of Global South peoples in other ways—such as the U.K., EU, and U.S. negotiators removing the Loss and Damages Finance Facility in the final agreement. 

The Failure of UK Leadership at COP26

For all his tears, COP26 President Alok Sharma, and his boss Prime Minister Boris Johnson, failed to show adequate leadership on the links between the climate crisis and the food we eat. As hosts, the U.K. could have pushed for the food system’s 25 percent of total global emissions to be addressed at COP. But Johnson referred only to “coal, cars, cash and trees” and, as others have pointed out, no “cows.” For anyone following the U.K. government’s dismissive treatment of its own National Food Strategy report, this comes as no surprise. (But as I wrote back in 2015 too, it’s not as if the more positive French hosts of COP21 addressed animal agriculture either.)

Who Has the Loudest Voice in International Diplomacy?

A source close to the negotiations told me how the developing nations from the Global South were being silenced by bureaucracy. “They only have small teams, and so can’t cover the 20 or 30 meetings all happening at once,” he told me. “They are more worn out, more tired, and don’t have the processing capacity of the larger delegations.” Or, indeed, he could have added, the fossil fuel companies, who, with over 500 delegates, had more attendees than any single country.

The Plant-Based Advocacy Movement Has Limited Lobbying Power

While the Dutch Party for the Animals, the U.K.’s Animal Welfare Party, Humane Society International, the Vegan Society, ProVeg International, Feedback, Compassion in World Farming, Plant Based Treaty, and others all made efforts to amplify a collective voice for plant-based food systems inside and outside COP26, none were involved in the actual negotiations.

Even collectively, the power of this group remains tiny when compared to the lobbying power of the 35 meat companies that control the global exploitation of farmed animals. These 35 companies (Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and others) ensure their industries are embedded in the global narrative of food security. Plant-based delegates could only watch as Big Ag’s narrative played out in the Methane Pledge, which barely mentions methane from animal agriculture. The meat lobby has shaped this outcome with decades of high-impact, high-cost political lobbying. As the European Alliance for Plant-Based Foods put it: “The Pledge misses the opportunity to take a firm stance on the climate impact of agriculture activities, whose sustainability transition would be a game-changer in the global effort to reduce GHG emissions.”

Myths About Animal Sentience and Human Responsibility

A side event organized by Nestlé epitomized the deeper problem at COP26: the continued and embedded myths of “animals as machines” and “personal choice.” The side event debated whether both animal- and plant-based agriculture had a future role in mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis. A dairy farmer spoke about his “efficient cows.” When challenged to talk about cows as animals and not machines, the dairy farmer literally could not. He did not have the vocabulary or cognitive openness to talk about animals in any way other than as his property.

These myths, or what the Narrative Initiative calls “deep narratives,” are embedded in our societies, institutions and relationships. They stretch back to the Enlightenment, and are as much a part of European colonial extractivist capitalism as coal-fired power stations. These hierarchical narratives have destroyed ancient, indigenous worldviews of reciprocity between human and nonhuman worlds. They have spread like plagues to dominate our relations with others. 

The deep narrative of personal choice or freedom is the most insidious. It is used without thought—including by COP26 climate delegates choosing their lunch meal—and upheld by politicians such as U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack, who said in the middle of COP26 that Americans can carry on eating meat while keeping the world within safe limits on global heating.

These deep narratives are stubborn to shift. They are part of a society’s commonly held values and beliefs. As humans, we wish to belong to our group and will do everything we can to maintain our status within it. But let’s be clear: the deep narrative of personal choice and individual freedom is, more or less, the manifesto of a widespread Eurocentric cult that believes in human superiority over the nonhuman world.

Of course, some people just haven’t thought enough about animal agriculture’s climate impacts. But even when they do, such thoughts radically challenge their deepest narratives about who they are and how they behave. So they push them away, quickly. That’s true even of thousands of the meat-eating climate delegates at the conference.

So What Can We Do?

As Emma Garnett, a food researcher at the University of Cambridge, told me at the conference: “Food is so tied up in culture and identity. I think the environmental impacts of the food system and how these could be reduced through diet change are therefore a thorny issue for governments to tackle. But we absolutely need to step up the plate: the planet depends on it.”

“Plant-based policies can support mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as adaptation and resilience,” Sabrina Ahmed from The Vegan Society added. “We’ve seen some progress since previous COPs but it doesn’t go far enough.”

The U.N. has called for food to be central to discussions at the next COP27 in Egypt. This is welcome, but will it be too late? What can we do in the meantime?

We have to tackle the pragmatic issues in front of us as well as continue to work to reprogram the damaging deep narratives that subjugate animals. As advocates, it is our job to do at least these things:

  1. Continue to challenge environmental groups, who have greater lobbying power than animal groups, to advocate more strongly for plant-based solutions
  2. Call out the cult of personal freedom and consumer choice inside climate negotiations
  3. Build capacity and amplify a more collective voice from the plant-based and animal movements, working in coalition wherever possible
  4. Ask our governments to institute food sustainability laws that recognize the health, environmental, economic, and ethical benefits of plant-based solutions
  5. Make it clear that plant-based solutions are directed first of all toward Global North economies, and are not attempts to further hurt Global South communities
  6. Demand consistent Global North leadership to ensure plant-based solutions are part of adaptation plans, just transitions, and compensation packages for loss and damage in Global South countries

While plant-based food and policies are now more palatable in the U.K., United States, Canada, and Europe, a global conference such as COP26 puts such progress in perspective. If we are to see the twin injustices of the climate crisis and animal exploitation put right, then we need to find equitable solutions and flexible narratives that work for those already most harmed.

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