COP27: A ‘notable disappointment’ for sustainable food systems

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

The verdict on COP27 for food and farming: 'COP27 maintained a firm focus on supply-side solutions' / Pic: GettyImages-Malecus85
The verdict on COP27 for food and farming: 'COP27 maintained a firm focus on supply-side solutions' / Pic: GettyImages-Malecus85

Related tags: COP27, food system, Sustainability, Climate change

As climate talks conclude in Sharm El Sheikh, for the first time ever a deal has been reached that will see agriculture integrated into the UN’s climate action body. The result of lengthy talks and a significant process of negotiation, does the so-called Koronivia package represent a win for sustainable food systems?

While the historic Loss and Damage Fund was the most attention-grabbing deal to come out of the COP27 negotiations in Egypt this year (establishing as it does a fund to support climate-vulnerable developing countries), those pushing for food to be part of the climate conversation will undoubtedly be gratified to see the sign-off of the Koronivia package which, for the first time ever, puts agriculture onto the agenda of the UNFCCC, the UN’s climate action body.

The agreement looked touch and go at some points, with talks running through to the eleventh hour and governments signing off on the final text at 6am on Sunday (20 November). The UNFCCC will now incorporate ‘work on implementation of climate action on agriculture and food security’. This is a significant moment for sustainable food systems, raising hopes that the neglect of food and farming issues in the UN climate agreement will come to an end and laying the groundwork for greater action to tackle emissions from this industrial area.

Growing calls for food system change 

The deal comes in response to strong calls for food to become an integral part of this year’s climate discussions.

Food production is linked to more than one-third of total manmade greenhouse gas emissions. For the first time, over 200 events, four pavilions and a day dedicated to agriculture and adaptation have placed the food system at the heart of the climate crisis, with campaigners insisting the agri-food sector must play a key role in limiting global warming to 1.5˚C – as per the Paris Agreement.

Reflecting on the outcomes of COP27, World Animal Protection Director of External Engagement Kelly Dent noted: “One bright spot in these crucial but otherwise frustrating climate negotiations has been the strong demand of civil society to include food systems in the debate through the presence of several food pavilions, numerous side events and a dedicated Agriculture Day putting food systems well and truly on the radar of the world leaders charged with saving our planet.”

Addressing the role that food plays in climate change will remain on the radar for future climate efforts – but this work needs to accelerate, the animal rights advocate predicted. “The momentum for the inclusion of agriculture and food systems in future discussions is now irreversible, though much more needs to be done to move it where it needs to be – near the top of the agenda.”

“It’s a significant step to see the UN climate agreement will begin to target greater action to tackle the enormous emissions from industrial agriculture and provide funding to make agriculture more resilient to climate change,”​ agreed Mamadou Goita, Executive Director of the Institute for Research and Promotion of Alternatives in Development (IRPAD).

Focus on supply side takes sustainable diets off the table

However, by focusing on agriculture, the approach taken in the Koronivia package stops short of agreeing that there is a need to discuss a transition towards sustainable food systems. This is an important distinction. 

Tim Benton of think-tank Chatham House said it was ‘notably disappointing’ that while food systems were in debate unlike in previous COPs, there was still ‘significant political resistance’ to fully adopting a systems approach. “COP27 maintained a firm focus on supply-side solutions to tackle food insecurity, avoiding the politically more contentious demand-side issues of ensuring nutritious and sustainable diets for all.”

Issues like food waste and loss, nutrition, sustainable diets and resilient supply chains continue to be excluded from the UN climate agreement, Goita added, suggesting this does not bode well for our ability to transition towards a climate smart food system. "If actions are not incorporated across the whole food system, from food waste and loss to sustainable supply chains and healthy diets, we will fail to meet the world's great food and climate challenges," ​the expert warned. 

The outcome of COP27 largely represents a defence of the food system status quo, campaigners worry. For instance, Dent observed, while a number of new countries signed up to the methane pledge that was launched in Glasgow at COP26, ‘this commitment doesn’t cover the biggest sectoral source of methane emissions - livestock farming’. “This is a concern because it gives big meat producers carte blanche to continue to destroy and clear natural habitat for factory farmed animal feed crops. And though high emitting companies such as JBS committed to the agriculture sector roadmap - but they did not, as demanded by civil society and activists, come clean on the true levels of their emissions and the impact of their deforestation.”

World Animal Protection, which submitted research to COP27 showing higher welfare pigs emit less methane, argues the world’s largest agri-food companies have failed to deliver adequate business strategies to align with the 1.5˚C climate target. For its part JBS, the world’s second largest food company, has set targets to stamp out deforestation in its supply chain by 2035 and move to net zero emissions by 2040.

Big agribusiness dominates while small-scale farmers left in the cold

IPES-Food experts suggest that the growing emphasis on the food industry brought with it a bulked-up presence from delegates representing ‘big agribusiness’, with numbers more than doubling compared to last year’s talks.

The international expert panel believes that ‘many’ of the food and farming initiatives announced, such as AIM4C, fell short of the ‘fundamental transformation of food systems’ needed to secure a 1.5°C future, effectively ‘perpetuating reliance’ on fossil fuels and input-intensive monocultures. This COP will also expand carbon markets and offsets into land and farming. This risks land competition, people’s land tenure rights, and carbon removals, IPES-Food warned. Lastly, small-scale farmers’ demands for climate finance to support adaptation to climate changes and create long-term resilience have gone 'largely unmet', they said.

“Small-scale farmers are being hit first and worst by climate change. They struggled to have their voices heard at COP27, amongst the record high agribusiness lobbyists, and the extortionate expense. They demanded support and climate finance for diverse and resilient agroecological food systems to help adapt to the floods and droughts they are facing - but they leave with very little,”​ Million Belay, coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa and panel expert with IPES-Food said.

“Despite all the green buzzwords, COP27 has seen a number of initiatives simply doling out more support to big agribusinesses and their large-scale extractive model of industrial agriculture that’s causing climate change. Small-scale farmers have done little to cause the climate crisis but their needs and solutions are being crowded out,”​ added Lim Li Ching, panel expert with IPES-Food, and Senior Researcher at Third World Network.

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