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When Nick Morrow decided to go vegan eight years ago, he wasn’t thinking about climate change.
Instead, he was motivated by the health benefits after his dad had suffered a severe stroke — and as an animal lover, he was also concerned about how livestock were treated.
Since opening the Picnic, a café in Glasgow that is one of the city’s most popular vegan restaurants, he’s noticed how a plant-based diet has become mainstream, with more choices on store shelves and better labelling on menus and packaging.
While the environment was far from his mind when he decided to ditch meat and dairy, Morrow said it’s often the impetus for why people these days make the dietary switch.
And with Glasgow hosting the COP26 climate conference this month, Morrow said he can only shake his head as world leaders discuss many issues related to global warming — but avoid talk of food production or agriculture generally.
“Most people who are vegan are very mindful of the fact that animal agriculture, in regards to CO2 emissions, is pretty much the elephant in the room,” said Morrow.
Or as some plant-based advocates describe it — the “cow in the room.”
They say a change in our diets can help to solve climate change.
“The scale and speed of the shift that is needed to halt and reverse the climate damage caused by livestock demands world leaders to take decisive action,” said Sean Mackenney, with the Humane Society International.
“COP26 has been framed as a Race to Zero. But in its refusal to set ambitious targets and strategies to meaningfully reduce the kinds of impacts of animal agriculture, it is more like a gentle Sunday stroll,” he said.
The Conference of Parties (COP) meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up in the 1990s to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequent climate agreements.
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Regardless of plant- or animal-based agriculture, the marginalization of the subject at COP26 mirrors how governments around the world are often hesitant to address the sector’s climate impacts.
In Canada, farmers are often spared from some parts of the carbon tax, because governments decide to provide exemptions on things like farm fuel and natural gas to heat greenhouses.
When the federal government raised its methane-reduction goal last month, also announcing its support for the Global Methane Pledge, the focus was on emissions from the oilpatch.
Methane is a natural byproduct of cattle digestion, meaning it is emitted into the atmosphere every time a cow burps or farts. Experts say it’s more complicated to tackle methane emissions from agriculture compared to oil and natural gas production.
Agriculture represents about 10 per cent of Canada’s overall emissions, a figure which has remained relatively flat over the last few decades. Over that time, there have been fluctuations in the source of those emissions because of trends within the industry; major livestock populations peaked in 2005 before decreasing sharply until 2011, while fertilizer use is up 71 per cent since 2005.
In total, food production counts for about one-third of global emissions, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. At COP26, there are specific days focused on themes, such as energy, finance, transport, youth and cities; agriculture was mixed together with land and ocean management, under the theme of nature.
“I’m not sure … if that means politicians don’t know what to do with agriculture and they don’t know how to solve the problem, or whether they’re afraid to jump into this talk with farmers,” said Stuart Oke, a vegetable and flower farmer from Ontario who is in Glasgow representing the National Farmers Union at COP26.
After two significant floods in the last five years in the Ottawa region, Oke said he is concerned about what farming will be like in 20 or 30 years, as climate change causes more severe and frequent natural disasters.
Oke’s message is that farmers want to be part of the solution and can make changes to reduce emissions, such as more efficient use of fertilizers. More support for research and technology will help, he said.
Livestock are central to the food system, he said, since even his farm uses animal manure. But he acknowledges that every part of the industry needs to be sustainable.
“We need to take a close look at ourselves in our own practices, and ask ourselves, like everybody should be, ‘What can we do to be part of the solution here? And how can we help to adapt and make our firms and food system grow a lot more resilient than it is now?” he said.
WATCH | Why this Ontario farmer made the trip to Scotland for COP26:
Certain farming practices, like zero tillage and the maintenance of grasslands, can act as a carbon sink and absorb some emissions.
But these practices were estimated to have eliminated about four million tonnes of CO2 in 2019, compared to the more than 70 million tonnes generated by the agriculture industry as a whole, including the use of on-farm fuel. The production of ammonia for use in fertilizers increases that level of emissions by an extra two million tonnes, according to federal data.
Ottawa has also committed $200 million to a fund aimed at reducing emissions from agriculture and helping farmers adapt to climate change.