International Conferences on Food, Climate & Soil Carbon Sequestration

Posted on Tuesday, May 9th, 2017 by Renata Brillinger

Last week, on behalf of CalCAN, I attended two unique and thought-provoking international conferences in Paris, France. The following is a report back on the two events.


The by-invitation conferences were loosely coordinated and overlapping, and both were the first of their kind. They were attended by approximately 350 people from at least 40 countries and every continent. Several CalCAN partners attended, as did Jenny Lester-Moffitt, Deputy Secretary with CDFA.

The Future of Food in a Changing World was organized by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, a collaboration of philanthropic foundations. The first conference brought together 250 experts and leaders from the local to the global to gain deeper insights into the connections between climate change and food systems, to craft visions of the food systems we need today and tomorrow, and to chart potential pathways to get there.

The second conference was titled Sequestering Carbon in Soil: Addressing the Climate Threat and was organized by Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions, philanthropic consultants. I served as a conference planning committee member along with others from Canada, Germany, France, Ghana and California. We met for six months leading up to the conference to provide input on the conference objectives, structure, content, speakers and participants.

Take Aways

Both events were permeated by a sense of urgency for global action to mitigate climate change and enhance adaptation to it in communities around the world. This was most dramatically evoked by Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), who concluded her opening remarks at the soil conference by urging us to “swallow the alarm clock” so its ticking would remind us of the imperative to act. We also heard a video message from a young woman named Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner in the Marshall Islands that moved many to tears with its eloquence and strong message urging bold action.

Christiana Figueres (2nd from left) at the historic signing of the COP 21 Paris Agreement.

Dr. Claire Chenu, Special Ambassador for the UN International Year of Soils, emphasized the need for an acceleration of carbon sequestration in soils by providing data illustrating that, even if all countries met their commitments to the COP 21 in Paris last year (an increasingly unlikely possibility), there will be no way to remain below 2 degrees C with the projected amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Dr. Chenu’s slide showing the role of soil as an integrating concept

Echoing Dr. Chenu, Janos Pasztor from the Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General, stated that “climate change is no longer an issue of the future; it is an issue of the present.” Further, he urged participants in the food systems conference to focus efforts not only on mitigation but also carbon drawdown by saying “There is no question that we need to remove carbon from the atmosphere. The only question is how.”

A panel of farmers and farmer representatives described their operations and the strategies they use to store carbon. Seth Watkins, owner of Pinhook Farm in Iowa, focused on grazing practices to store carbon in soil and improve forage quality and cattle health. Christine Jones from Australia said that two things are required to build soil carbon: maximizing photosynthesis and transporting carbon into the soil for microorganism metabolism. Kofi Boa from Ghana’s Center for No-Till described his farm and the training programs they provide to smallholder farmers on soil health that mimics natural forest systems.

Kofi Boa from Ghana’s Center for No-Till

A recurring theme throughout the food systems conference was the need to address a multitude of interrelated issues embedded in improving the health, social and environmental issues that have caused climate change: Ricardo Salvador with the Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out that climate change is a symptom of inequity, and Raj Patel reminded us that the food system is not the same as a supply chain because it must also include consideration of workers, social health and economic justice.

At the soil carbon conference, a great deal of time was spent in working sessions discussing methods for accelerating soil carbon sequestration globally. Breakout topics ranged from science to financing to practice. I facilitated an afternoon session on policy, and emerging action themes included redirecting subsidies to practices that improve soil health and establishing an international network to facilitate ongoing cooperation, learning and dialogue.

On the last morning, a group of participants from the Global South, represented by a Kenyan woman named Shoba Liban from Pastoralist Women for Health and Education, presented a declaration they drafted urging conference participants and organizers to place climate adaptation and equity at the center of climate, agriculture and food systems discussions and planning.


Many conference attendees were interested in the California story, with our ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets, climate programs and incentives. The gatherings provided a rare opportunity to share our successes and challenges with some of the best and brightest researchers, farmers, funders, advocates and educators working at the intersection of food systems, agriculture and climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Most importantly, it was a powerful demonstration of the web of passionate and knowledgeable people around the world who are moving forward within diverse contexts and in the face of a multitude of complex challenges. Though the group took a sober and clear-eyed view of the daunting transition that is required for a sustainable future, the tone throughout was one of optimism, creativity, generosity and abiding commitment to the task.

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