On the menu at COP28

1st February 2024


This year’s climate conference served up mention of food systems for the first time. David Burrows explores the significance of this

Two words tend to dominate COP summits: fossil fuels. That was again the case at COP28 in Dubai; albeit this time those two words actually found their way into the final agreement – which called on countries to “transition away from” oil, gas and coal. It wasn’t the “phasing out” that many had hoped for, but these gatherings often leave you feeling a mixture of delight and despair.

This COP agreement – the so-called UAE Consensus on the global stocktake – contains every element that was under negotiation and can now be used by countries to develop stronger climate action plans, due by 2025. Which is why there was also excitement around the inclusion of another two words for the first time: food systems.

Countries, for example, are now “recognising 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”. The stocktake also “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”.

Some may find it difficult to understand why there is so much significance attached to the inclusion of a few (heavily contested) phrases. Words and worries that many readers will have heard before. Words that worryingly don’t go far enough. But as the FT reported, change does not magically happen with such words; their power lies instead in their ability to “normalise the once unthinkable”.

The paper was referring to fossil fuels, but this is exactly what is (hopefully) happening with food too. “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,” says Danielle Nierenberg from Food Tank, a think-tank focused on food.

This has come late in the day, mind, so what difference will it make?

Far from the norm

Food is responsible for around one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions and is the main driver of biodiversity loss. Agriculture consumes 70% of the world’s fresh water, too. And current food production still leaves 735 million people undernourished and more than 3.1 billion unable to afford a healthy diet. Another 4.2 billion people have unhealthy diets that contribute to non-communicable diseases, being overweight and obesity. Far too much is also wasted.

Efforts to curb this impact and correct this broken system have begun, but these are the early stages. Without regulatory interventions, the food industry is reticent to change very much. Big public displays of ambition on net zero and biodiversity are not hard to find, but major agri-food companies that are reducing greenhouse gas emissions are the exception rather than the rule.

In the run-up to COP came new research showing how little progress there has been in the UK to date. The charity Wrap, for example, found that progress against all three Courtauld Commitment 2030 targets (covering water, waste and greenhouse gas emissions) needs to accelerate. WWF, meanwhile, reported that food retail has a very long way to go to meet the target of halving the environmental impact of UK shopping baskets by 2030. Reduction of scope 3 emissions, which make up the lion’s share of food company footprints and come from sources such as agricultural production, packaging and consumption, is almost non-existent.

The Food Foundation’s latest analysis of the steps food companies are taking towards shifting to healthy and sustainable diets offered a similarly gloomy picture: instead of food businesses ramping up much-needed action towards a better food system, The State of the Nation’s Food Industry 2023 report shows that progress has slowed. Fewer commitments to sustainable diets are being set in comparison to the previous year, and the same goes for key health commitments. The foundation said food businesses are “failing to create a food environment where healthy and sustainable foods are affordable, readily available and appealing”.

The foundation also warned of stagnation in business transparency on key health and environmental indicators. This isn’t just the case in the UK. A global assessment of the world’s largest 350 agri-food companies by the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA), published before COP28, was similarly desperate. Almost half (47%) of the firms were not disclosing any scope 3 emissions figures, for example, while just 13 (or 4%) have set a scope 3 emissions reduction target aligned with 1.5°C and are reporting against it.

There will be consequences

It is easy to focus on the laggards and forget the leaders, but Viktoria de Bourbon de Parme, WBA’s food and agriculture transformation lead, points out that “good sustainability performance isn’t consequential enough. This means laggards can lag. They do not have to be transparent; they don’t show up to global events like the UN Food Systems Summit stocktake or COP28, and they are not part of campaigns calling on the private sector to step up. Basically, their action or failure to take action is not made consequential to their business.”

“With food finally on the table at COP, it was inevitable that meat and dairy were in the firing line”

There appeared to be less corporate commitment-making at this COP than the one in Glasgow (COP26). That was the height of interest in net-zero pledges, which gave way to a period of greenwashing and greenhushing – with companies creeping away from public claims and reporting.

At COP28, it was countries that came forward with agreements on food. The conference kicked off with a declaration on sustainable agriculture that has now been signed by more than 150 countries – all of which will integrate food into their climate plans (nationally determined contributions) by 2025. Some 124 countries also endorsed the Declaration on Climate and Health (a space to watch is how food, health and climate are tied).

On the corporate side, there was some movement on methane. Agriculture accounts for nearly 40% of human-caused methane – and methane emissions from livestock have to fall 25% by 2030 compared with 2020 to stay on course for the Paris climate agreement goal. There have been calls for food companies to report on this potent gas publicly and, in Dubai, Bel Group, Danone, General Mills, Kraft Heinz, Lactalis USA and Nestlé agreed to do so.

The Dairy Methane Action Alliance, organised with NGO the Environmental Defense Fund, will see the six dairy behemoths first break out methane emissions from their existing corporate greenhouse gas emission inventories. They will then create methane action and transition plans by the end of this year, which will likely include a number of interventions such as feed additives that will help reduce livestock emissions and improved manure management.

Danone, which last year set a target to reduce emissions from its fresh milk by 30%, also became the first corporation to join the Global Methane Hub’s enteric fermentation R&D accelerator. There is $200m in the pot, which will be invested in research and innovation to create scalable and practical solutions for livestock farmers that can mitigate enteric fermentation, which is the digestive process of ruminant livestock.

Talking meat

With food finally on the table at COP, it was inevitable that meat and dairy were in the firing line. Just prior to the summit came news that “big meat companies” and their representatives planned to present meat as “sustainable nutrition”, and argue that their products are beneficial to the environment. However, the likes of the Climate Change Committee have called for a reduction in meat and dairy consumption in order to meet net zero. Governments have, by and large, steered clear of the issue of meat consumption, which has allowed other voices to fill the void. COP offered little sign of that changing any time soon.

The stocktake, for example, kept mention of food systems to the ‘adaptation’ section, rather than including it within ‘mitigation’ too. The much-anticipated Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) roadmap to 1.5°C also mentioned the benefits of cutting meat consumption in rich countries but urged for “intensification” of livestock production in “relevant locations”.

This has worried campaigners, who feel the FAO is leaning heavily towards the meat and dairy industry’s adopted narrative. “Although it is implicit in the roadmap that healthy diets mean that rich people around the world need to reduce their meat and dairy consumption, the roadmap stops short of saying this,” wrote Changing Markets Foundation CEO Nusa Urbancic on social media. “It assumes that the consumption of animal products will inevitably go up as people’s incomes rise, and ignores the huge opportunity that a shift to nutritious, plant-based diets represents. In fact, plant-based meat alternatives are only mentioned as a potential risk – as products that might have nutritional deficiencies.”

There are two more volumes of the roadmap to come: the second instalment will include regional analyses; the third will have specific country action plans. Whether these will register some of the more uncomfortable truths relating to consumption remains to be seen.

It is too early to say whether COP28 will be a tipping point for action on food systems. As Brent Loken, WWF global food lead scientist, said in a podcast with Nierenberg. “We don’t have time to be negative any more. We can be disappointed, but being disappointed and being negative are different things.”

“Sustainability performance isn’t consequential enough. This means laggards can lag. They do not have to be transparent”

David Burrows is a freelance writer and researcher

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