COP28: Food was on the menu, but will it be a wasted opportunity?

07 February 2024, 10:00 AM
  • COP28 marked a pivotal moment in the global conversation around climate change. But did it go far enough where food security is concerned? Speciality Food reports
COP28: Food was on the menu, but will it be a wasted opportunity?

The COP28 climate summit, held in Dubai in late 2023, was not without controversy – from allegations that the United Arab Emirates intended to use the UN climate summit to make oil and gas deals, to critics saying the key climate deal, which requires countries to “transition away from fossil fuels”, had loopholes that would allow countries to continue producing and consuming coal, oil and gas.

Despite this, for many food industry experts, COP28 was seen as a success. “This conversation usually focuses on other emitters, such as the transportation and energy sectors,” said a spokesperson for Food4Climate Pavilion, a group of organisations influencing food policy at COP28.

But for the first time, the global food system, which is responsible for 30% of carbon dioxide emissions, was on the agenda. The Food4Climate Pavilion, led by ProVeg International, World Animal Protection, Upfield and other leading global actors, called COP28 a “turning point” in the conversation about the sustainability of food and farming on a global scale.

“From having a dedicated ‘Food, Agriculture and Water Day’ where food systems were put in the spotlight, to hitting huge milestones such as the signing of the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action by over 150 countries, which was the first of its kind, it was encouraging to see how high up food was on the COP agenda,” they said.

Adele Jones, executive director of the Sustainable Food Trust, attended the summit with a sceptical eye, but she was, on the whole, pleasantly surprised by what she saw. “It was a very busy, productive and actually pretty hopeful week in Dubai for the world of food and farming.”

Food and farming highlights from COP28

• Over 150 countries signed the food systems declaration, which includes a commitment to include agriculture and food systems in countries’ climate targets before COP30. 

• More than 200 non-government organisations signed a Call to Action for Food-Systems Transformation.

• More than 16 philanthropies committed funding to transforming food systems, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Bezos Earth Fund, which donated $57 million for climate change and biodiversity loss, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which announced $200 million to help smallholder farmers in Africa adapt to climate change.

• Six major food companies pledged to publish and implement a plan to reduce emissions of methane from dairy production by the end of 2024.

• 26 companies and organisations will work to transition 160 million hectares to regenerative agriculture before COP30 and will report on the impact on soil health, emissions, biodiversity, water and farmer livelihoods.

Joao Campari, global food practice leader at the WWF, said food systems transformation became a “core agenda item” at COP28. “What started as a few voices on the margins of COPs just a couple of years ago has crescendoed to a summit-wide day of pledges and announcements,” Joao said.

The most encouraging of these announcements was the food systems declaration, signed by 159 countries, representing 68% of the world’s farmers. James Amar, strategy and corporate social responsibility director at fine food distributor RH Amar, said it showed “a strong signal of intent”.

In addition to the pledges made, Adele said COP28 differed from summits in the past because of the joined-up approach between governments, NGOs and private sector companies. What’s more, she said, “the private sector has really stepped up”.

Dr Alex Money, director of the Innovative Infrastructure Investment (in3) programme at the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, added, “This COP has the biggest representation of private sector companies yet. In the food sector, companies could play a transformational role in moving societies from conventional to alternative sources of protein and accelerating progress to net zero.”

Challenges ahead

While the wheels may have been put in motion at COP28, questions remain over whether this progress will result in a genuine shift towards a more sustainable and just food system.

“Getting food on the agenda at COP28 was a great step forward. Moving from the agenda to a serious and actionable plan is a whole other challenge,” Sue Pritchard, chief executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission told Speciality Food. “We will continue to press governments and businesses to prioritise food system transformation – taking fossil fuels out of food and farming, and aligning public and private investment behind more equitable, transparent, resilient and healthy food systems,” she added. 

RH Amar’s James agreed, saying, “The proof will be in the pudding in terms of what global action is achieved before COP29 later this year and whether COP28 really marks a collective turning point.

“My hope is that the legacy of COP28 will be a much-needed consistency of message, and with it, confidence for those of us in the food industry to continue on our sustainability journeys and that our small steps locally will lead to giant leaps globally for the environment and for the future of food and agriculture,” James continued. “Actions will speak louder than words.”

For Adele, question marks remain around financing. “The big question for me is how we make progress fast on financing the urgently needed agriculture transition, whilst operating within the constraints of a global economic system which is dishonest and unjust.”

The industry also needs to do more to amplify marginalised voices, said Food4Climate Pavilion’s spokesperson. “From indigenous communities to farmers in the Global South. We have a lot to learn from their lives and stories about the harmful effects of industrial animal agriculture. Once we give these voices a platform, we will be better equipped to make real, positive change that positively impacts everyone involved in the global food system, not just those in the Global North.”

Dr Brian O’Callaghan, lead research and project manager at Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, said the world can no longer accept “false excuses such as ‘we can’t afford it’ or ‘developing countries can finance it themselves’”.

“We need a step-change in progress,” he said, “or COP28 will fade as another wasted opportunity.”

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