Home » COP28: Food systems transformation vital to reach climate goals, yet overlooked in draft text

COP28: Food systems transformation vital to reach climate goals, yet overlooked in draft text

by Madaline Dunn

This COP was meant to be the “Food COP,” and with a dedicated day, when the climate summit began, many were cautiously optimistic. However, Food, Agriculture and Water Day has ended, and food system transformation and agriculture are still being overlooked in the draft text of the Global Stocktake.

We may have seen some flashy financial pledges, but even these funding commitments are sparse in detail. 

The facts are clear: food systems are responsible for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions globally, and our global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss. It is a system steeped in inequality, and as our population grows, so too does food insecurity; we need a system that is equitable, sustainable and just. 

Corporate interests penetrate climate summit 

As reported by ESG Mena earlier this week, over one hundred representatives from the meat and dairy industry are attending with country delegations, and beyond this, the summit has seen record numbers of lobbyists from these industries. 

From meat giants to dairy heavy hitters, big industry players have shown up in their droves, leaving many questioning how this will impact the final outcome of COP. 

Asked about this on the sidelines of COP28, Director of Corporate Affairs and Communications at Upfield, Susannah Moore, said that it’s important that meat and dairy are part of the conversations due to their environmental impact: “If they weren’t here, that would be a worse situation to be in.”

Angel Flores, International External Affairs Manager, World Animal Protection, echoed this but said: “I think what’s problematic about what we’re seeing is that some have undue influence, like being part of government delegations and so on.”

Adding: “Their presence here is okay, as long as they are bringing with them solutions that involve everyone, that are inclusive enough that smallholders can also be part of them.” 

However, there’s been a question mark on how open the industry is to conversation and collaboration. 

“We started Food4Climate with an event called ‘The Great Food Debate,’ which was about bringing people’s perspectives together,” said Juliette Tronchon, Senior Policy and Public Affairs Specialist, ProVeg International, “But after that, I haven’t really seen them at the Pavilion.”

Meanwhile, Flores emphasised the need for more dialogue: “I attended some big ag events as well, just to see what they were saying and who was there, and I guess that’s where the problem is that they’re talking in these forums where they are the audience, and sometimes we have forums within the space we’re in, where we are also the main audience. So there’s a real need to get together and have more meaningful conversations.”

Placing small farmers at the heart of conversations 

With big meat and dairy companies launching a plan to maintain the status quo, smallholder farmers in the countries bearing the brunt of their actions are contending with more floods and droughts that jeopardise their livelihoods. 

Yesterday morning, at a panel on smallholder farmers and traditional food producers, it was highlighted that, despite limited resources, farmers are innovating to counteract the effects of climate change. 

And, from constructing raised soil beds and utilising sacks for planting to creating vegetable tunnels, farmer-led solutions are an integral part of adaptation, but climate financing is essential to scaling out and up their work. 

Research from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) found that farmers are investing a staggering average of between 20–40 per cent of their annual income in adapting to climate change. 

It’s clear that smallholder farmers, who produce around a third of the world’s food, cannot do this alone and holistic solutions are required at scale.  

“Smallholder farmers must be at the centre of this transformation as they think about investments and solutions within this sector. We want to see not just any kind of transformation, we want it to be equitable, we want to bring the most vulnerable to the forefront,” said Flores on a panel yesterday.

Yet, smallholder farms receive just 0.3% of climate financing. 

At a press conference yesterday morning, when asked for numbers on the climate finance going to farmers, H.E Mariam Almheiri, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, admitted that the money going into food systems and ag is “way too little,” but didn’t share details on funds allocation. 

Food finance & more pledges 

The finance dedicated to food systems, more broadly, is also shockingly low; between 2019 and 2020, just 4 per cent of global climate finance went to agrifood systems.

And although we have seen $17 billion pledged by the US and UAE for “sustainable innovation” in the agriculture and food sector, this now needs to be matched with tangible action and must be backed up with prioritisation of food and ag in the Global Stocktake. 

Yesterday, speaking about the role of food and ag in climate change efforts in a comment to ESG Mena, COP28 Director General, HE Majid Al Suwaidi, said: “Food Systems reform is something that’s good for all of us, not only from a mitigation point of view, but also from an adaptation point of view.  

“We all need to work together to make sure that food systems are working well, and particularly working well for those who are in vulnerable situations.”

Outside of the negotiations, we have seen food spotlighted across a number of pavilions, and the COP Presidency has been keen to highlight two-thirds of food served is “climate-conscious,” which is undoubtedly an improvement on COP27’s meat-heavy menu.

However, this is not enough. 

Likewise, the COP28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action has been applauded, and although it includes some promising elements, it’s not legally binding and doesn’t set out a clear roadmap.

Reason for hope?

With little movement on food and agriculture in the formal negotiations, many are disappointed with the pace of how things are progressing, but those from within the plant-based and animal advocacy space remain hopeful. 

“Look at the progress that’s been made, even in the last five years of COP, we started off with not having any type of food representation,” said Moore, “Now we’ve got our own space, we’ve got a massive roster of events.” 

“There is movement, and I think we should take hope in that,” added Moore.

Indeed, yesterday, among other announcements and pledges, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its Net-Zero Food Plan, which outlines ten areas, including soil and water, crops, diets, and 120 actions.

“The overarching objective over the next three decades is to transition from being a net emitter to a carbon sink,” said the FAO. 

Sunday also saw Brazil, Cambodia, Norway, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda announce the launch of a new Alliance of Champions for Food Systems Transformation (ACF). 

Yesterday, the alliance pledged to:

  • Strengthen national visions and food systems transformation pathways, inclusive of ten priority action areas and consistent with science-based targets SBTs.
  •  Update Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), Long-Term Low Emission Development Strategies (LT-LEDS), and National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs) in line with these updated National Food System Transformation Pathways and/or Implementation Plans, by 2025 at the latest. 
  • Report annually on targets and priority intervention areas.

There’s no silver bullet solution to fix our broken food system, but genuine, open dialogue can facilitate movement in the right direction. Food systems transformation is a key tool for climate change mitigation, and indeed, switching to plant-based diets has been identified as the single biggest way people can reduce their environmental impact. 

Food tech innovation has a huge role to play in tackling emissions, reducing food-related harms and addressing food insecurity, as does applying nature-based farming practices that centre people at the heart. 

We must look at climate action through the lens of compassion, whether that’s for people, the planet or animals who are killed in their billions each year. 

As COP28 quickly draws to a close, it’s important to remember what can be unlocked here, and the consequences of what will happen if no action is taken on food and agriculture at the negotiations. 

“If the international community fails to address food systems in the formal outcome of the COP28 negotiations, Dubai will not be known as the ‘Food COP,’ what it will instead be seen as is the COP that allowed food systems to be marginalised within climate action,” said Amelia Linn, Director of Global Policy, Mercy For Animals, yesterday. 

By Madaline Dunn, Lead Journalist, ESG Mena

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