20.12.2023 |

What the “Food COP” had in store for food and agriculture

Is agriculture finally on the global climate agenda? (Photo: CC0/Pixabay)

On December 13th, after two weeks of lengthy negotiations, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) came to a close with an agreement. COP28 President Dr. Sultan Al Jaber praised the “historic achievement” of the conference, exhausted delegates and observers issued their first statements before heading back home and journalists weighed up the strengths and weaknesses of the outcome document. In the days that followed, many organisations and experts published their in-depth analyses of COP28 or shared their second thoughts. The final agreement’s call on state parties to transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems to reach net zero by 2050 was celebrated by many as a first step while others decried the failure of the conference to agree on phasing out fossil fuels despite many countries advocating for the stronger term. Although food and farming systems are responsible for at least a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, they were largely neglected at previous climate talks. The final COP agreements remained silent on the contribution of food and agriculture to climate change as well as the crucial role the sector can play in limiting it. This year, food and farming featured quite prominently, with the event even being dubbed as the “Food Cop” and attracting a large presence of representatives of the meat and dairy industry who joined the growing ranks of fossil fuel lobbyists. The conference opened with a declaration on sustainable farming, dedicated a whole day and many pavilions and side events to food, agriculture and water, saw the launch of a global roadmap aimed at eliminating hunger and all forms of malnutrition without exceeding the 1.5°C threshold and closed with an outcome document that mentioned sustainable agriculture and resilient food systems.

Some said the glass is half-empty due to the non-binding nature of these declarations of intent. “This was supposed to be the Food COP, but the conclusions were not good neither for the future of the food systems nor for limiting the effects of climate change”, commented Edward Mukiibi, president of Slow Food, a global movement that promotes good, clean and fair food for all. He denounced the lack of concrete and binding targets, the influence of major emitters in the agriculture sector at the conference and the postponement of the discussions to transform the food systems to the next meetings. Danielle Nierenberg, president of the US-based non-profit organisation Food Tank, had also hoped for a stronger wording in the final document but she underlined that the glass was still half full: “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,” she told The Guardian. Or as she reflected in an interview with Brent Loken, Global Food Lead Scientist at WWF, this COP was not perfect but tangible gains were made in terms of recognising the power of food systems on an international scale: “Finally, we have a floor to stand on – and to build on.”

So what exactly was agreed on in Dubai and how do food experts and NGOs think about it? The final outcome document of COP28 is the Global Stocktake (GST). The Global Stocktake process was agreed on in the 2015 Paris Agreement and is an assessment of the progress on climate action that takes place every five year. The COP28 agreement was the “First global stocktake” to be released and governments now have two years to update their climate plans and submit their adapted “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) to the UN. The global stocktake is a compromise and the lowest common denominator all 196 countries could agree on. It “recognises the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change”. It “encourages the implementation of integrated, multi-sectoral solutions, such as land-use management, sustainable agriculture, resilient food systems, nature-based solutions and ecosystem-based approaches”. State parties are urged to increase ambition and enhance adaptation action in order to attain “climate-resilient food and agricultural production and supply and distribution of food, as well as increasing sustainable and regenerative production and equitable access to adequate food and nutrition for all”.

Slowfood described the GST as “largely void, with just one mention of food systems under the Adaptation section but excluded from the Mitigation section.” Yvette Cabrera, a food waste expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, also mentioned this point to the Guardian. She stressed that 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, but “We also need to take steps to mitigate the emissions that are happening now as well.” Others spoke out more frankly. “Omitting food system action in the final COP28 text is a stark betrayal of urgency,” Emile Frison, an expert of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), wrote in a post on Twitter/X. “Ignoring the one-third of greenhouse gas emissions from food systems is a dangerous oversight. We cannot afford another lost year for food and climate action,” he added. Brent Loken rather sees the GST as a win. “The final text, adopted this week, does indeed recognize food systems for the first-ever time in a UNFCCC document of this variety. Granted, most references to food systems are related to adaptation, not mitigation; most of the food-related references in the mitigation section are around sustainable production and consumption, rather than systems-level analysis,” he told Nierenberg, admitting that global leaders still have a ways to recognize the power of food systems as a key climate solution. “But the food movement has been successful in raising the profile of food in just a few short years.”

But let’s go back to the beginning of the climate talks. The COP28 presidency kicked off the event announcing that 134 world leaders had endorsed the “Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action”. „COP28 Presidency puts food systems transformation on global climate agenda”, the press release was headlined. It pointed out that the 134 signatory countries are home to over 5.7 billion people and almost 500 million farmers, produce 70% of the food we eat, and are responsible for 76% all emissions from global food systems or 25% of total emissions globally. In the meantime, the number of signatories increased to 159 states. The non-binding declaration recognises the profound potential of agriculture and food systems to drive powerful responses to climate change and the signatories voice their intentions to integrate food and agriculture into their climate plans. The countries declared their “intent to work in order to achieve the” objective of “scaling-up adaptation and resilience activities and responses in order to reduce the vulnerability of all farmers, fisherfolk, and other food producers to the impacts of climate change, including through financial and technical support for solutions, capacity building, infrastructure, and innovations, including early warning systems, that promote sustainable food security, production and nutrition, while conserving, protecting and restoring nature.” Another aim is to promote “food security and nutrition by increasing efforts to support vulnerable people through approaches such as social protection systems and safety nets, school feeding and public procurement programs, among others. Moreover, workers in agriculture and food systems should be supported and “the integrated management of water in agriculture and food systems” be strengthened. States also intend to “maximize the climate and environmental benefits - while containing and reducing harmful impacts - associated with agriculture and food systems by conserving, protecting and restoring land and natural ecosystems, enhancing soil health, and biodiversity, and shifting from higher greenhouse gas-emitting practices to more sustainable production and consumption approaches, including by reducing food loss and waste.” These objectives are complemented with the promise of states to strengthen their “respective and shared efforts to pursue broad, transparent, and inclusive engagement, as appropriate within” their “national contexts, to integrate agriculture and food systems into National Adaptation Plans” and to “revisit or orient policies and public support related to agriculture and food systems to achieve the objectives of the declaration”. States also agreed to scale-up and enhance access to all forms of finance from the public, philanthropic and private sector in order to adapt and transform agriculture and food systems to respond to climate change. As the quoted text shows, the document is loosely worded and many fear that the unspecific terminology gives the agriculture and food industry the chance to greenwash their participation in climate mitigation.

Over 200 events at COP28 focused on food and agriculture and the first-ever UN-climate-COP Food, Agriculture and Water Day was celebrated on December 10th. On this occasion, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched its Global Roadmap for Achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG2) without Breaching the 1.5°C Threshold. It outlines a strategy spanning the next three years that lists solutions across ten distinct domains of action: clean energy, crops, fisheries and aquaculture, food loss and waste, forests and wetlands, healthy diets, livestock, soil and water, and data and inclusive policies. With regard to emissions, the documents calls for a reduction of methane emissions from livestock by 25% by 2030 relative to 2020, wants to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035, and transform food systems into a carbon sink by 2050, capturing 1.5 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. Concerning food and nutrition, it sets a path to eliminate chronic undernourishment by 2030 and ensure access to healthy diets for all by 2050 and recommends to improve crop diversification. Another milestone to be achieved by 2030 is to reduce by 50% per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels. Yvette Cabrera hopes that the road map, although it is not binding, might give countries “a sense of how to move forward in integrating food systems into their climate goals”. Dr. Sophia Murphy, Executive Director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) said the roadmap “offers a welcome focus on the right to food in the cacophony of food interests that have descended on COP”, referring to the fact that three times as many meat and dairy lobbyists attended at COP28 compared to the previous conference and that lobbyists even formed part of national delegations. But Murphy was disappointed that “the report neglects to call on big agricultural companies to make real emissions reductions, especially in rich countries where cutting methane and nitrous oxide emissions from industrial animal operations is a low-hanging fruit with huge collateral benefits for biodiversity, rural economies and healthy diets”.

Another disappointment for many was the breakdown of talks of an initiative called the Sharm el-Sheikh Joint Work on implementation on agriculture and food security (SSJW), a four-year process adopted at COP27. Negotiations concluded on December 5th with no agreements of substance and negotiations on how to implement commitments made at COP27 will only resume in June 2024, 18 months after SSJW was established. Brent Loken said this was “a far cry from the multi-year strategic plan we were hoping negotiators would produce during COP28 itself.” Joao Campari, Global Food Practice Leader at WWF, was also upset: “With Joint Work negotiations not resuming until June 2024, an opportunity to take a big step forward on climate action has already been wasted – negotiators can’t squander another by excluding food systems transformation from the Global Stocktake.” Kirubel Tadele, Communications Officer of AFSA, a broad alliance of different African civil society actors, also said that the postponement “signals a worrying delay in addressing the urgent climate challenges facing African agriculture, critically undermining the potential for meaningful climate action in a sector integral to Africa’s survival and resilience.”

Finally, with all the talk about sustainable agriculture and nature-based solutions, proponents of agroecology were deeply disappointed that agroecology did not make it into the relevant documents. “Most disappointingly, as expected, agroecology was sidelined and did not emerge in policy discussions as a key element, nor was it mentioned as the solution which will allow us to reverse the course and fight against climate change,” said Slow Food’s Edward Mukiibi. IATP also lamented that “despite the spotlight on food systems at COP28, the final decisions said little about the urgent need for transformative shifts toward agroecology to address the climate crisis”. Anika Schroeder from Misereor, the German Catholic Bishops' Organisation for Development Cooperation, also voiced her disappointment with regard to the outcome: “The so-called ‘Food COP’ has turned out to be a greenwashing event with many bold commitments towards more climate-friendly agriculture and food systems. Non-binding declarations and statements which do not even mention the big elephant in the room – the highly fossil fuel-based food system. They lack a clear vision towards agroecology which has proved to build up high resilience and low carbon.” Brent Loken, however, still remains optimistic. In his conversation with Danielle Nierenberg, he said that we don’t have time to be negative anymore. “We can be disappointed, but I think being disappointed and being negative are different things.” Nierenberg adds that “If we can imagine a better world – a world that’s not disappointing but actually empowering, sustainable, just – we can fight to make it a reality.” She agrees with him that after COP28, the food movement has a floor to stand on. “Now, we need to get building,” she concludes. (ab)

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