Pat and Sharon O’Toole are delegates to the COP26 event in Glasgow. COP stands for “Congress of Parties” and this is the 26th year it has been held. The gathering is sponsored by the United Nations in order to address climate change—both its consequences as well as strategies to slow or reverse the rise in temperatures, severe storms, flooding, effects on health, and loss of wildlife habitat among other consequences. The O’Tooles are sharing their experiences through a series of blog posts from the event.
Update #1: First Impressions from Scotland and COP 26
Greetings from Scotland! We are in Glasgow representing the organization Solutions from the Land (SfL), where Pat serves as a Board member. SfL focuses on land-based solutions to global challenges, with ranchers, farmers, foresters, and partners who advocate for enabling agricultural landscapes to bring solutions in such challenging areas as food and energy security, sustainable economic development, and environmental improvement. (See solutionsfromtheland.org.)
Pat also serves a President of the Family Farm Alliance, representing irrigators, and on the boards of Partnerscapes and the Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV). The IWJV staff has kindly offered to distribute this blog.
In the debate over climate change, and ways to address its effects, agriculture has become a target. Competing studies, including those by the United Nations, cite statistics attributing methane pollution to livestock production. These percentages range from minor to as much as 32 percent. This usually includes the agricultural part of the transportation sector, as we run tractors, transport food, and drive home from the grocery store. Animal agriculture has been a particular target. It is easy to target domestic livestock production without recognizing that properly managed grazing animals are a tool—indeed one of the very best tools—to regenerate soils and plants on the landscape.
Agriculture has had minimal representation at past COPs and discussions led by the United Nations. In fact, SfL is one of the few organizations that has shown up at the table to consistently carry the message that agriculture and ranching can be a solution, not a problem. Pat likes to say, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” We also need to be in the kitchen!
Our first impression is the stark gap between those who are on the land and those who are enacting policies and programs to address the challenges we are facing. Our job is to bridge that gap.
Last week—the first week of COP26—was attended by four American agriculturalists with SfL. Click here to read some of their reflections. This week, Pat and Sharon are attending with Iowa farmer Ray Gaesser. Up to 30,000 people are delegates and around 100,000 people, many of them young, are demonstrating outside. The demonstrators are demanding action to avert the disastrous effects of climate change. We, too, want to hear solutions proffered.
We arrived a couple of days early and decided to see the sights. All the locals told us that we must visit the Highlands—at least that’s what we think they said since their English is somewhat different than what we hear in Wyoming. We booked a tour and went north. It is amazing country! We were heartened to see the pastures dotted with sheep and cattle. In the rough north country, almost all of the cattle were Scottish Highlanders. With the chill and the wet, you can sure see why they’ve developed those coats!
The Scottish people couldn’t be nicer. They are not just friendly; they really go out of their way to help. This is an adventure, both in seeing the countryside and in attending the COP with people from all over the world. Our goal is to carry forward our message that agriculture is essential, and that it is a solution. Stay tuned for additional posts on how the conversations happening here can support partnership-driven, science-based habitat conservation for both people and wildlife!
Update # 2: It’s All About the Hat
Who knew that a cowboy hat would be the key to opening discussions with other people attending the COP26? Keep reading and you’ll learn why.
Folks from all over the world are here attending the COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow, including indigenous people from the rainforest to NGO staff to government representatives from many countries—and two ranchers and a farmer from the United States.
The COP26 main venue houses booths hosted by different countries. Some sporting themes: there’s the Methane Moment area and the Peatlands space. All are competing for the attention of the attendees and trying to get their message out.
Our voices as ranchers and farmers are not well-represented here. We are agriculturalists and conservationists. Little recognition is given to wildlife, unless it’s a polar bear or an elephant. Our message is that agriculture is not the problem, it’s a solution. Our message is that in many parts of the world, wildlife habitat is enhanced or even created by agricultural practices.
A pervasive theme here is the carbon imprint of food. At the food venues around the site, a number representing the carbon imprint is posted. The Scottish beef burgers have the largest number, but we ordered them anyway. Actually, they weren’t too far ahead of the fried broccoli.
We attended a panel discussion where the carbon footprint of rice was examined. The panelist from the United States said that two big methane emissions in California come from the Central Valley, a rich farming region, and the Sacramento-area rice fields. He said that rice accounts for 30 percent of agricultural emissions. He also pointed out that without the responsible management practices of the rice growers, migratory birds would have no place to feed and rest on their journey. Although agriculture has historically been the biggest driver of wetland loss, rice cultivation now supports crucial agricultural wetland habitats in the Pacific Flyway and provides open space around expanding urban centers. Winter habitat provided by rice farming as critical to sustaining waterbird populations in the Central Valley. State, federal, and private wetland complexes in the area provide habitat, too, but in places like the Sacramento Valley, where wetlands are now a small fraction of their historic extent due to urban expansion and other land-use changes, it’s the surrounding agricultural land that provides birds with critical habitat buffers—and the ample food source provided by the rice harvest leftovers. Rice is also a staple food for 30 percent of the world’s population.
Regional clothing is worn by folks from everywhere. Lots of feathered headdresses, Sikh dastars, Middle Eastern skullcaps, Saudi ghutras, and Scottish fedoras are to be seen.
Pat’s Stetson is the only cowboy hat around, and it attracts all kinds of people wanting to talk about the American West. This gives us a good opening to talk about the issues, very much related to climate, and the importance of food and fiber production. We emphasize the relationship between farmers, ranchers, habitat, and wildlife.
Pat’s hat (and his deep knowledge of the issues) attracted an attendee who filmed us discussing the value of food and fiber production. It led to a conversation with a Honduran who loved the American West. It gives us an opening to carry our message. Never underestimate the power of a cowboy hat!
Update #3: All Thing Seen and Unseen
Here at COP26 we feel like we are living the tale of the blind man and the elephant—we are perceiving a lot, but there are lots that are unseen. With that in mind, here’s what we are not seeing.
Our goal here is to represent agriculture, livestock, grazing, and the nexus with conservation. COP26 is an attempt by most governments around the world to contain rising average temperatures to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, using 1850 (pre-industrialization) as a baseline. We are already at about a 1-degree increase. Sometimes extreme weather—hurricanes, flooding, drought, Derechos—are a result of a changing climate. Although one can argue specifics—where is this taking place, how is it measured, etc.—we are all experiencing the results.
Part of our ranching operation lies in Colorado’s Moffat County, which is one of the world’s “hot spots.” Northwest Colorado’s temperatures have increased 2 degrees Celsius or more already. We are seeing, on the ground, in our lives, extreme drought that stresses vegetation, wildlife, livestock, and people. Without a doubt, it is affecting us on a daily basis.
High-level meetings at COP26 are taking place to try to hammer out agreements to reach the goal of reduction in global warming yet China and Russia, two of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, stayed home. It was a huge announcement yesterday when the Biden administration announced that a climate agreement had been reached with China. But what we don’t hear is a lot of practical solutions.
Two “solutions” thrown around a lot are eliminating beef and grazing animals, and eliminating driving cars. Glasgow has a great public transportation system, but Wyoming does not. Many COP26 attendees celebrate Indigenous cultures, but see everything through an urban lens. In our community, and the larger food and forestry community, we do have solutions that will make a real impact. We have programs, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife that get real work done on the ground, in the landscape. Farms like Ray Gaesser’s in Iowa are showcases for the world on how to produce crops at scale while improving soil and resources. The people on the land offer actual solutions.
This is the message we are conveying at this conference.
Update #4: Making Our Message Heard
Day 4 at the COP26 talks was a big one for us. We have been talking, talking, talking to other delegates, trying to convey that agriculture is a solution and can offer mitigation and regeneration to landscapes needing healthy management.
Traveling with us is Ray Gaesser, a world-class farmer with a 30-year record of unparalleled innovation. He has a gift for engaging people, from fellow travelers on the Edinburgh to Glasgow train to those in our government and others. He is a large-scale farmer of corn and soybeans in Iowa. He is innovative and open-minded and works extensively with researchers to determine the best way to produce crops, enhance soil and benefit natural resources.
Each of us has been engaging with whoever will listen to convey our message supporting agricultural production and practices which improve the landscape.
Pat spoke at length with Joao Campari, Global Leader of the World Wildlife Fund’s Food Practice initiative. He was curious and engaged and recognized our message that wildlife habitat is largely dependent on private landowners and their stewardship. As an example, rice growers in California manage the flooding of their paddies to minimize methane release and to accommodate the migratory birds who are dependent upon the rice fields to survive as they travel. The role of wildlife and its symbiotic relationship with agricultural practices is missing from these discussions at COP26. It requires education regarding the web of life.
We heard the drum (sometimes literally from protesters outside) beat by some to eliminate meat from the human diet. There was no thoughtful consideration of indigenous and rural cultures and their role as pastoralists. There was no recognition or appreciation for the superpower of grazing animals to convert grass and sunshine into protein.
Pat did engage with Fred Krupp, long-time President of the Environmental Defense Fund, which is sometimes a reasonable partner with progressive ag organizations. Fred spoke in front of a mural that depicted cows, along with the big “30%” description of livestock production’s contribution to greenhouse gases, and the phrase “Simple Solutions”—the “simple solution” being to get rid of livestock production. When we challenged the meaning behind the mural, Krupp responded that it was just a pretty picture of cows and that the 30 percent was an absolute fact, so how could this be offensive.
We explained that grazing and good farming practices are a solution to both producing food and improving the landscape, a message that was missing from the COP26 deliberations. We did our best to make this message heard, both to Krupp and people from around the world.
Update #5: Reflections and Moving Forward
It is challenging to summarize the experience and outcomes of attending COP26 as delegates representing Solutions from the Land (SfL). In that SfL focuses on land-based solutions to global challenges, our team carried the message that agriculture, livestock production, and forest health offer solutions to mitigate methane emissions. We joined farmers Ray Gaesser, Lois Wright Morton, Fred Yoder and AG Kawamura, and SfL President Ernie Shea in attending the COP26 over two weeks’ time.
We were told that past COPs agendas had hardly let agriculture, let alone animal agriculture, get their foot in the door. It didn’t take very long to realize that demonization of agriculture and forestry on a global policy scale is a potential issue that we all need to be paying attention to.
Pat observed that the COP process has been really naive in its view of production agriculture and its ability to create solutions. “Chilling” is the word that Pat used to describe this view. “The conversations at COP26 did not indicate an understanding of the need for success in balancing production and conservation in the context of overall strategy,” he observed.
The people who have gone to these COP meetings over the last years from all over the world say it’s only just now that agricultural producers are being recognized. Our team strongly conveyed the message that those who work in agriculture need to have a seat at the table.
Our path was made easier when United States Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack showed strong support for ag when he, along with Fred Yoder presented at the U.S. Pavilion. Vilsack was very proactive and this helped set the stage for the positive message carried by our team to focus on solutions, not agendas.
As international negotiators huddled in the last hours to hammer out an acceptable agreement, agriculture garnered a little attention. To the credit of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) they stated, “At COP26, governments recognized that soil and nutrient management practices and the optimal use of nutrients lie at the core of climate-resilient, sustainable food production systems and can contribute to global food security. It was also recognized that while livestock management systems are vulnerable to climate change, improving sustainable production and animal health can contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions while enhancing sinks on pasture and grazing lands. Improving sustainable production and animal health can contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions while enhancing sinks on pasture and grazing lands.”
The need to produce 50 percent more food worldwide in the coming decades was hardly mentioned at all. Virtually no notice was given to wildlife and wildlife habitat enhanced by agricultural production. These are glaring omissions.
Fossil fuels, especially coal, were the crux of the negotiations. Oil, gas, and coal provides about 80 percent of all the energy used by human civilization. In China, it’s 88 percent (US Energy Information Administration). In the U.S., about 80 percent. The other big influencer is India, third in emissions and receiving 70 percent of its energy from coal alone. India and China’s negotiators intervened in the last hours to water down language about reduction of fossil fuel use and subsidies to “phase down” from “phase out.” An emphasis was placed on deforestation, but other than an exhortation to plant trees, attention was not given to the role sound forest management has in sequestering carbon and managing water.
In the end, we believe our Solutions from the Land team of seven was highly effective. We communicated with all sorts of representatives including the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, to the lone delegate from Tajikistan about the importance of agriculture and forestry, and its role as a solution to climate change.
If the goal of no more warming than 1.5 degrees centigrade has a hope of being met (we’re currently at 1.1), it will take all sectors. The solutions are not simplistic and will take an all-globe effort. The solutions offered by agriculture and forestry practices are and will be key.