Last month, the 28th edition of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) came to a close. For a period of two weeks, an estimated 70,000 delegates – made up of world leaders, business experts, young people, scientists, Indigenous Peoples, and various other stakeholders – gathered to discuss the climate crisis.
Although it has long been recognised that global warming needs to be addressed, and that the agri-food system is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (close to one-third of total anthropogenic GHG emissions is attributed to food and agriculture), the event has often been criticised for overlooking these contributions.
Progress was made at COP27 in Egypt, where advocates of food systems transformation hosted the first ever food-focused pavilion (Food4Climate Pavilion). The event also dedicated a day to agriculture and adaptation. But some felt that focus on supply-side solutions pushed sustainable diets off the table.
“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,” commented Tim Benton of think-tank Chatham House at the time.
This year, the ‘tide turned’ in the right direction, according to members of the Food4Climate Pavilion. But was food high enough on the agenda? And crystal ball-gazing into the future, what’s expected to be on the menu at COP29?
Food moves up the agenda at COP28
Even before COP28 kicked off, there were signs the topic of food was working its way up the agenda.
Climate impact labels were rolled out across five Carrefour stores in Dubai, including at COP28, for example. The carbon footprint of shoppers’ purchased items was also printed at the bottom of their receipts at the COP28 store location.
At the event, an increased range of plant-based food options (two-thirds vegan and vegetarian) were available to delegates, including vegan fast food from Neat Burger and plant-based sushi alternatives from Roots and Rolls. And looking to the official agenda, an entire day (10 December) was dedicated to the topic of ‘Food, Agriculture and Water’.
At COP28, the ‘tide turned’, according to Juliette Tronchon, senior policy and public affairs specialist at ProVeg International, who co-hosted the Food4Climate Pavilion at COP28 alongside associations and industry players such as Compassion in World Farming, the Plant Based Food Institute, Changing Markets Foundation, Impossible Foods and plant-based CPG major Upfield.
“For three decades, the link between our dietary choices and the warming of our planet has been overlooked at climate conferences…However the tide turned at COP28, where people paid significantly more attention to how harmful our food systems are; not just to the environment but also on food security, human health, people’s livelihoods and how animals are treated,” Tronchon told FoodNavigator.
For the policy and public affairs lead, the Pavilion played a major role in pushing food up the agenda. “Throughout the conference, the Pavilion brought policymakers and experts together to share insights, research and innovative solutions to encourage a shift towards plant-rich, balanced, and diverse diets.”
Other aspects of COP28 also served to bring agri-food to the forefront of discussions, including the signing of the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action by more than 150 countries to adapt and transform food systems to mitigate the climate crisis. Further, more than 120 countries backed the UAE Climate and Health Declaration to place ‘health at the heart of climate action’.
The signing of these declarations were ‘significant milestones’, noted Tronchon. “And let’s not forget that for the first time, a whole day was dedicated to the topic of food. This created a platform where concrete, systemic and pragmatic solutions could be put forward and crucially, were taken seriously.”
So how did COP28 fall short being genuinely considered a ‘food COP’?
While the signing of these declarations was celebrated, concerns have been raised that they don’t go far enough.
The Emirates Declaration, for example, has been criticised for its lack of legally binding commitments. “We cannot meet our global climate goals without urgent action to transform the industrial food system, which is responsible for one-third of GHG emissions and 15% of fossil fuel use,” commented Lim Li Ching, co-chair of IPES-Food and senior researcher for Third World Network, at the time. “But while this is an essential first step, the language remains very vague – and specific actions and measurable targets are conspicuously missing.”
Another Food4Climate Pavilion co-host, Upfield, acknowledges that overall COP28 represents a ‘positive step’ in the right direction. The signing of the Emirates Declaration was an obvious milestone, while the ‘landmark’ UNEP report ‘What’s Cooking’ also laid out a comprehensive set of policy recommendations to remove barriers to the adoption of more plant-based foods as a climate solution, noted Perran Harvey, senior global policy lead at Upfield.
“However, looking ahead, these commitments and recommendations need to be translated into tangible, concrete plans at national level – an aspect where COP28 fell short.
“This should include championing less resource-intense diets, for example through equitable VAT for plant-based foods and readdressing current subsidy schemes to incentivise the production of low carbon foods, making plant-based food more affordable and accessible.
“If we are to level the playing field, we need strategic investment in research and development around plant-based foods, greening public procurement practices and ensuring national dietary guidelines take sustainability into account.”
Crystal ball-gazing: What’s on the menu for COP29?
The 29th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP29) is scheduled to take place 11-24 November in host country Azerbaijan. It’s too early to know very much about the upcoming conference, although Azerbaijan’s first English language newspaper has published the names of its Organizational Committee for COP29. The 28-strong list is male only, sparking criticism and a call for inclusion and diversity.
As to what members of the Food4Climate Pavilion are expecting from COP29, ProVeg’s Tronchon suggested she hopes a more diverse range of perspectives are brought to the table. “To influence real change and make the world’s food system healthier, more balanced, and better for the planet, we’ve got to dig deeper than the surface.
“We need to listen to the people who are most deeply connected to the food system, namely farmers and those living in the Global South, and I think there will be greater emphasis on this at COP29. We need to hear a diverse range of perspectives if we are to truly understand the challenges we face and uncover more sustainable pathways.”
The policy and public affairs specialist is convinced there is much to be learnt from those who depend on the global food system. Their lived experiences illustrate the disparities and vulnerabilities inherent in the system and the urgency of implementing equitable solutions, we were told. “Our aim is to ensure their voices are heart at COP29.”
As to how members of the Food4Climate Pavilion plan to ensure food continues to work its way up the agenda, Upfield’s Harvey said one crucial way will be by transitioning declarations on global food systems into actionable plans. “Upfield wants to see concrete commitments on promoting and supporting sustainable, healthy diets, allowing for a just transition for high-emitting sectors.”
An initial ‘promising example’ is one set by Denmark: the country has set the ‘world’s first’ action plan for plant-based foods that includes funds and subsidy schemes, advice for start-ups, and initiatives to attract investment and strengthen Danish plant-based exports.
“Countries like the Netherlands and Germany have also earmarked investments into pioneering and supporting the adoption of low-carbon plant-based foods,” commented Harvey.
“Finally, and most importantly, at COP29 we need to see a real food systems approach – looking at the whole value chain, including the environmental impacts of both agricultural production and food consumption, where currently these two topics are often discussed in a disjointed way.
“The UAE Declaration was a good first step, and we can go further.”