May 20, 2024

Food systems – what we eat; how we grow, ship and cook it; and how we dispose of (and sometimes waste) it – are responsible for roughly a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. But for the better part of three decades, the final agreements that emerge from the UN’s yearly climate summits have left out the impact food systems have on our climate.

That changed this year in Dubai. The conference opened with a declaration on sustainable agriculture signed by more than 130 countries. For the first time ever, it featured a whole day devoted to food and agriculture and saw a food systems road map laid out by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Perhaps most strikingly, the final agreement document that was revealed at the end of the conference acknowledged sustainable agriculture as a part of responding appropriately to climate change.

The increased focus on food didn’t just draw experts – it also drew Big Ag lobbyists eager to shape outcomes, and the final language didn’t go as far as many sustainability advocates would’ve liked. But food was undeniably given a more prominent spot at the summit than it has been in years prior.

“It’s really exciting that food is finally on the table. Now we have this ability to talk about food systems as a solution to the climate crisis in a way that we haven’t ever had the chance to before,” said Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, a non-profit think tank.

The food system conversations at the climate summit started with a bang as the Cop28 presidency announced the Cop28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action, or the declaration for short. Though the declaration is not legally binding, the more than 150 countries that signed on by the end of the conference are essentially announcing their intentions to integrate food and agriculture into their climate plans.

“Countries must put food systems and agriculture at the heart of their climate ambitions, addressing both global emissions and protecting the lives and livelihoods of farmers living on the front line of climate change,” said Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri, the UAE minister of climate change and environment and the Cop28 food systems lead.

Next, the FAO unveiled its new road map meant to outline the pathway required to bring the world’s food production in line with global climate goals, in something of a parallel to the road map the International Energy Agency laid out for the energy transition in 2021. The FAO pathway emphasizes cutting methane emissions from livestock by 25% and halving food waste emissions by 2030, and recommends growing a more biodiverse range of crops than the world currently relies on.

Beyond the big announcements, the sense on the ground was that food was a bigger deal than ever. As a regular Cop attendee since Cop16 in Cancun, Mexico, in 2010, Nierenberg said she’s seen the conversation around food shift significantly. She was particularly encouraged this year to feel like there was more interest in food from those working outside the sector. “I think we broke down some silos. We weren’t just preaching to the choir,” she said.

Nierenberg said she walked away “encouraged” by the growing attention to food systems at the conference, and she appreciated that food systems were mentioned in the final agreement hammered out at the conference. But she also wished that the language in the final document had gone further.

Yvette Cabrera, a food waste expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, did too. “One thing that a lot of food systems advocates and many of the countries that were behind the declaration wanted to see was some of the text and commitments in the declaration lifted into the final global stocktake language,” she said.

A brown-skinned, middle-aged Asian woman speaks into a microphone, while behind her two groups of people in a row hold banners, one of which says '1.5 is not possible without climate action on food systems.'
Activists protest for equitable global food production on day 11 of Cop28, on 11 December 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

That didn’t happen. Instead, the final agreement sprinkled small mentions of food systems throughout, and largely couched conversations about food systems in the section focused on adaptation, rather than mitigation. While adaptation is “very important, because we absolutely need to figure out what our future food system looks like, and be ready for that”, Cabrera said: “We also need to take steps to mitigate the emissions that are happening now as well.”

Others put it more harshly. “The glaring omission of food system transformation and agriculture emissions in the final text is a stark betrayal of urgency … We cannot afford another lost year for food and climate action,” said Emile Frison, an expert speaking on behalf of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).

The difference in attendees’ summaries highlights the particular tightrope that always seems to accompany discussions of Cop – the line between trying to acknowledge progress that has been made, while also being realistic about how far there still is to go.

One barrier to meaningful progress that caused a buzz this year was the overrepresentation of corporate interests at the conference. Much like the fossil fuel lobbyists who argue that the world can’t afford to do away with oil and gas if we want energy security, Big Ag lobbyists defend a current status quo that’s actively heating up the planet in the name of food security.

Lobbyists were in full force at the summit in Dubai. Big meat and dairy lobbyists showed up in record numbers, with three times more agribusiness representatives present this year than last. Among their ranks were representatives from meat supplier JBS, which has been linked to deforestation in the Amazon; pesticide company Bayer, against the backdrop of lawsuits claiming that its weedkiller Roundup causes cancer; and fertilizer giant Nutrien, which makes synthetic fertilizers from fossil fuels.

Amid a range of events on financing the regenerative agriculture transition and food waste reduction, there were also gatherings sponsored by the International Dairy Federation and the North American Meat Institute with titles like How Animal Source Food Nourishes the World in Times of Climate Change.

“They’re trying to convince people that, whether it’s fertilizer or livestock, they’re providing more solutions than they are failures or obstacles,” said Nierenberg of agribusiness lobbyists. “That’s what the meat institute was doing in a big way – trying to change the narrative that livestock are a big contributor to climate change, even though they are responsible for at least 14% of emissions.”

While sustainable food system experts argue that there’s an “urgent need for reforms that limit corporate influence at UN climate meetings”, many still came away encouraged about the direction Cop is heading when it comes to conversations around food.

Nierenberg noted that the FAO already announced plans to build on its road map over the next two years, culminating at Cop30 in Brazil, which she said “people are looking at as the place where we will make significant headway on how food and agriculture systems are talked about, and what ends up in the final global stocktake document”.

Cabrera hopes that the FAO road map, while not binding, might give countries a sense of how to move forward in integrating food systems into their climate goals in the meantime. She also hopes it might unlock more funding for food sector-based solutions, which currently receive only 3% of public climate finance.

For all the progress that still needs to be made, “Frankly, I think it was a success,” said Cabrera. “I’m walking away feeling motivated about the final text, and also just the pure energy around food systems at Cop this year.”

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