Final Dispatches from Cancun: Conversations and Observations on Food, Agriculture & Climate

Final Dispatches from Cancun: Conversations and Observations on Food, Agriculture & Climate

One way of putting the food-climate connection

Heard, said, and seen at the recently concluded Cancun COP 16 climate summit:


“It’s not a choice, it cannot be the future–the way we live. Meat: yes or no? I don’t want to answer that, but do we need to find alternatives? Yes, we need to find alternatives. What is the carbon cycle? What is the footprint? We know very little: [there’s] a huge research agenda in front of us and not a lot of time to go through this. [We] need to do this in the next few years to make better decisions for all of us.” That was Juergen Voegele, Director of Agriculture and Rural Development at the World Bank, responding to a question about rising meat consumption and production and global warming at a panel titled, “Enabling Agriculture and Forestry to Contribute to Climate Change Responses.” He also said: “Ministers of forest, agriculture, and environment don’t talk to each other. [This discussion] has to be higher than the ministerial level. It has to be at the presidential level, so ministries work together. [We] need to put these issues at top of political agenda.” The Cancun summit didn’t do this. Future climate summits likely will. But when? How? In what form? We don’t know yet. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has a series of informative blogs exploring government delegations’ negotiations in Cancun on agriculture, and the overall agreement that emerged.


Supporters of Supreme Master and vegan advocate Ching Hai, were, as they did in Copenhagen, in Cancun sharing information–and handy carrying bags–on the climate-meat nexus. Although corralled just outside the Cancunmesse conference center complex, the spot, seemingly just off the beaten path, was also central. All the buses traveling to the Moon Palace, where the government negotiations took place, stopped for a few minutes security and traffic control just behind the Supreme Master billboard, which read “Organic vegan=the best solution for the planet.” It was hard to miss, even if one’s eyes were (mostly) staring down at a tiny screen.


It’s been a while since I sat next to a 17 year-old, but I did one night on my way back to the center of Cancun from the Klimaforum. This young man and his friend were members of the youth delegation from New Zealand. They’d meet with the New Zealand government delegation on a regular basis. They were impressive. They said they were tracking forest issues, but also knew about agriculture and global warming. “There are more cows than people” in New Zealand”, the young man next to me said. (Sheep numbers in New Zealand, now about 30 million, have been falling, while the cow population, now numbering nearly six million, has been rising to the highest level ever. For comparison, New Zealand’s human population is about 4.3 million.) He pointed out that Fonterra, a New Zealand company, is among the world’s largest sellers of dairy products–including, as we both knew, in Brazil. Its agenda, he continued, he continued, would get a friendly reception from New Zealand delegates. Fast forward to Agriculture and Rural Development Day, held as an adjunct to the climate conference. A New Zealand representative helping wrap up the proceedings sounded at times like an ambassador for New Zealand meat and dairy products, which he branded, surprisingly, as increasingly climate-friendly.


As I left Cancun, my driver and I struck up a conversation in Spanglish on the way to the airport. “Good food is cara(expensive),” he said, sadly. “Junk food–‘comida chatarra’– is cheap. For big families, it’s like they have to buy it. They can’t afford good food.” At the airport, I had a few pesos left so checked out the shops. What the driver had said came right back. Natural dried fruit and nut mix? Sixty pesos. Potato chips? Twenty, one-third the cost, and an inflated, airport price at that. I settled for fruit-flavored, sugar-free U.S. brand gum: 15 pesos. Tasty, but not particularly sustaining.