The cow in the room of climate action

Sean Sean Mackenney
Written by Sean Mackenney

Tags: climate action communications environment PR

When I attended COP26 last year, I was not in the least bit surprised by the lack of conversation and action around our food system. After all, I was there as part of an awareness campaign called “The Cow in the Room”, urging decision-makers to address the impact of our broken food system, and more specifically industrialised animal agriculture, on the planet. Regardless, I still felt incredibly frustrated by the lack of opportunities to have meaningful interactions on this topic.

Within the Blue Zone are the pavilions, most of which are occupied by nations or large global corporations. In this area, delegates attend panel discussions and networking events and so it is a vital space to shape dialogues and build networks.

As I walked around the pavilions, most of which were vast and high-tech, I came across one pavilion concerning food and animal agriculture. It was a small booth with just enough space for a table with leaflets. This pavilion didn’t have space for events, and very rarely did I see people engage with it. It seemed abundantly clear that people did not want to talk about food. Even pavilions focused on issues deeply affected by animal agriculture, such as the Methane Pledge pavilion, kept agriculture as a sidenote. This is despite agriculture contributing 37% of global methane emissions and up to 28% of total global emissions.

And of the conversations that were being had around food, most focused on further intensification of farming and using tactics, such as changing livestock feed, rewilding and even implementing cow masks, to mitigate rising emissions in the sector. This was evident in a panel including George Eustice MP and various members of the National Farmers Union, when I asked the former why the UK government wasn’t exploring every type of mitigation strategy in tackling our broken food system, he simply stated that we didn’t need to. Whilst I was frustrated by the existing conversation, and the lack of diverse voices on the subject, I knew there was a growing appetite for this discussion. As part of an alliance of NGOs and plant-based corporates, we held a press conference to a packed-out audience repeating our call for a just food transition. We advocated for meat reduction as the most immediate and impactful action not just in drastically reducing emissions, but in healing a plethora of other symptoms of our broken food system, including deforestation, the destruction of biodiversity and the increased risk of infectious diseases.

I felt reinvigorated by this small moment of acknowledgment. There were rumblings but not enough to create long lasting, impactful change. If we were to be heard, we would need to mobilise and shape the conversation. The following day, I spoke with a former colleague about how we as a collective needed a pavilion to create a dialogue around food. We would no longer be dependent on tapping into other conversations or listening to decisionmakers avoid talking about meaningful mitigation strategies. Days after the conference had ended, an alliance of NGOs and corporates, which I am proud to have been a part of, started putting into action a food pavilion at COP27, which would focus on a broad range of topics such as sustainable investment, shifting diets and youth action.

While this may seem like the beginning of the movement, it has taken years to get to this point and there is still so much further to go towards meaningful change. The truth is that we are running out of time and the world refuses to address our food system. Only 3% of both public and private funding for climate change mitigation goes towards fixing our food system, despite being the second largest contributor to climate change. We need greater investment; greater resolve and we desperately need to change the way we eat.

I am hugely proud of my friends and former colleagues as they continue to force the issue through the Food4Climate pavilion, providing balanced and intersectional conversations on food, hearing perspectives from youth activists, farmers, indigenous people, and local communities. I am also encouraged to see another food systems pavilion at COP27 as well as the Egyptian presidency announcing a day dedicated to “adaptation and agriculture”. But this needs to be more than just words and empty promises because without addressing what’s on our plate, we cannot avoid climate collapse.

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