COP 17 Cuisine: Climate-Friendly and Not

COP 17 Cuisine: Climate-Friendly and Not

Durban Conference Center: Where's the beef?

You’d think…that with food and agriculture and their links to global warming getting increased attention from climate change researchers and negotiators, including here at COP, that what’s served would be more climate-friendly. You’d think that would be the case.

But you’d be wrong (like me). The main catering facility (UN-speak, I suppose) at the Durban Exhibition Center hardly has a plant-based item on offer. While both Rural Development and Agriculture Day and Forest Day (conferences of a sort held over the weekend here in Durban) had vegetarian options at lunch, they also had beef and chicken, with no indication that those had come from producers practicing “climate-smart agriculture,” a catch-all phrase that can and does mean many things to many people here.

South Africa has a bifurcated agricultural sector: large, industrial operations producing, for example, most of the one billion chickens South Africans eat each year (including those at the ubiquitous KFC); and small-scale farmers working basically at subsistence levels. The first can be very wealthy; the latter are usually very poor. That divide has been acknowledged here in Durban, but there’s an emerging narrative that “climate-smart agriculture” may well include more of each: sustainable intensification and greater assistance for small farmers.

Some of that will potentially come from carbon-credit schemes, another big topic at COP 17 and one not without its intense controversies. Will small- and medium-sized farmers really benefit? How much carbon is stored in soils anyway? And will the deals be equitable, or another way for the rich countries to avoid reducing their emissions while “offsetting” them through a small farm in KwaZuluNatal?

Even as some of the big international agencies and governments recognize that intensified livestock production means more greenhouse gases, and that people in industrialized countries eat too much meat (I’ve heard that from several senior policy and scientific people here), what’s on the lunch and dinner menus doesn’t reflect climate realities.

Why that’s the case is something that continues to puzzle me and not a few others. It is strange: bicycles are here, solar arrays, water harvesting, buses. But climate-friendly food? Not on the agenda. Meanwhile, we frequent the outdoor food court that has vegan options: falafel, veg curries and rice, plus the Durban speciality bunny chow, and a coffee bar with soy milk (also on sale: biltong, or dried meat, of ostriches and kudu). We’re glad it’s here. If only more government delegates were, too.

Photo by John Connell