A prairie farm kid's reflections on COP27


I headed off to COP27 on Nov. 9 with a general acknowledgment of why I thought it was so important to go and share the Canadian innovation story. I was honoured to be part of the official Canadian Delegation and I did not take the opportunity lightly.

I had three main objectives:

  • To better understand global sentiments and trends to ensure that Protein Industries Canada investments are aligned;
  • To help communicate how Canadian agriculture and food processing is employing innovation to address both mitigation and adaptation to climate change; and
  • To gain insight into whether proposed solutions aimed at global GHG emission reductions for the sector are prescriptive and/or regulatory in nature.

COP27 was a great experience for this prairie farm kid; I heard from global leaders firsthand about the impacts of climate change on their agriculture industries and what solutions they propose. And I was able to share the Canadian agriculture story and what we are doing to address the issues facing the sector.

Here are my reflections… I hope you find them useful.

There is a looming food systems crisis

I think it is easy for those of us in Canada to be dismissive of the short-lived food supply chain issues experienced in the early days of Covid — when we all got into making sourdough bread and couldn’t buy flour. I think it is quite another matter to get grounded in the food security issues facing much of the developing world and those being affected by climate change and the war in Ukraine. For folks not well versed in the term “food system”, at its simplest, it is the process or steps we go through to grow, process, distribute, retail, market, consume and dispose of the food we eat. Disruption in any one of these areas can result in food not arriving at its intended target. On top of food system challenges, developing nations are facing cost inflation while, at the same time, increased hunger and malnutrition.

Understandably at COP, there was a lot of talk about the need to “redesign global food systems” with solutions related to tighter supply chains and larger investment in local food production for developing nations. For Canada, as a major supplier of calories to both the developed and developing world, we need to be at the forefront of discussions to help guide the conversation in a way that balances greater need for food sovereignty with better integration of food supply chains. Canada offers an abundance of supply, a stable geopolitical environment and a well-developed transportation infrastructure.

With respect to climate change, global food systems are simultaneously a problem, a victim and a solution.

We need a “doubly green revolution”

Most of you reading this will have heard the statistics, “We need to produce as much food in the next 70 years as we have produced since the start of humanity.” or “We need to double food production by 2050.” Either way, we have a hill to climb. But COP27 made me realize the other factor we need to address: GHG emissions reduction.

Globally, agriculture and food account for 30 per cent of emissions. That means for those working in the agriculture sector, it is not good enough to say that “agriculture is different” or “people need to eat” or “we are dealing with biological systems”, therefore “we don’t have to reduce emissions to the same degree as the energy or transportation sectors”. The stark reality is that we must reduce emissions while increasing global food production — meaning we need a doubly green revolution. To accomplish this, we need to be four times as ecologically efficient as we are today. No small feat.

Innovation will need to underpin the changes we need to make

If you look at the Herculean challenge ahead for the agriculture sector, doubling production while halving emissions, it is clear that policy and regulation, although important tools, are minor relative to the need for investment in research and innovation. I attended the general session on Food and Agriculture for Sustainable Transformation (FAST) Initiative, which is the flagship initiative on the Egyptian COP27 Presidency that seeks to accelerate climate action in the food and agriculture sector. Repeatedly I heard leaders from developed and developing nations address the assembly about their research and innovation aimed at improving production efficiency while reducing emissions. This was almost always followed by a call for increased investment in research and development, knowledge sharing, and global collaboration.

In short:

We are not going to regulate our way to becoming four times as ecologically efficient as we are today.

Organic agriculture isn’t the answer being touted

Over the course of my time at COP27 I did not hear a credible argument in favour of organic agriculture as the answer to sustainable and resilient global food systems. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of special interest groups promoting the message that organic was the way forward, but the same leaders calling for more investment at the FAST initiative were not calling for a shift to organic agriculture.

More than anything, the focus was on “regenerative agriculture” If I had to simplify, I would liken the term regenerative agriculture to ag practices that return more carbon to the soil than is released in the production of commodities, be that either animals or plants. If I think about regenerative agriculture in those terms, I can see a path to increasing production while reducing emissions. Not a full path, but at least some steps. The sessions I attended at COP27 focused a lot on soil health and biodiversity as the way forward, with strong recognition that we must reverse recent trends in soil degradation. Canada has a lot to offer in this area. It was at COP27 that agriculture and food were on the official agenda for the first time, prompting one speaker to suggest: “We need to talk about soil as much as we talk about oil.”

Scope 3 emissions measurement is coming… we need to get ready

Scope 3 emissions — those that consider all the upstream and downstream emissions in production, distribution, use and disposal of a product — will be critical to understand and measure if we want to:

• Truly quantify agricultural emissions; and
• Design interventions to reduce emissions for the sector.

Scope 3 emissions will not be easy to measure. They require a level of precision that we don’t have today, and they will require cooperation and transparency along the value chain.

Data systems are critical

To several of the points above, the only way we will get to supply chain resiliency, improved production efficiency and Scope 3 emissions measurement is through better data along the entire agrifood supply chain. I often think about this in terms of effective MVR (measurement, verification and reporting) systems, which will take investment, collaboration and cooperation. We will need to solve the interoperability challenges in production agriculture and the entire value chain must realize the importance of data sharing and transparency. Not easy, but critically important.

Social License is no longer enough

I have worked for a long time in the agriculture sector and have witnessed and participated in the initial work around social license dating back to the advent of GMOs, right to the current debates on pesticides and fertilizer use. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean the sector should stop working to educate consumers about the technologies employed in agricultural production food processing as a means of ensuring that we can continue to employ modern technologies. What I do mean is that it’s no longer good enough for us to talk about the use of these existing technologies. We need to address ways to reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment and what we will do as a sector to reduce emissions. This is happening with some commodities and food processors, but it needs to happen more.

Where to from here?

If you read my take on what I learned from attending and speaking recently at Toronto’s Globe Forum, you might recall that I quoted Alison Sunstrum who said, “Canada needs to stand up and declare that we are an agricultural nation.” After attending COP27 and learning more about the challenges facing global food systems, I contend that Alison’s call to action couldn’t be truer. As an exporting nation with a relatively low agriculture carbon footprint, a strong innovation ecosystem and a stable geopolitical environment, we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to be a global leader.

Canada needs to stand up and declare that we are an agricultural nation.

But what does this mean? It addresses the same issues we have been discussing for years: greater investment in research and innovation across both the private and public sector, repair of our outdated regulatory system, better cooperation, and collaboration on data systems.

Maybe what we have been missing is the “why”. The challenges facing global food systems from climate change to inefficient supply chains and from malnutrition to food inflation are our why.

Please take some time in the next while to learn about the FAST Initiative that was launched at COP27 and to learn about the looming crisis facing global food systems. I think you’ll find the reason Canada needs to stand up and declare that we are an agricultural nation.

W. L. (Bill) Greuel
CEO at Protein Industries Canada