At COP28 governments must agree how to transform food systems

Food systems are a significant contributor to climate change and fragile to its impacts – but transforming them is even more divisive than transforming the energy sector.

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Published 15 November 2023 3 minute READ

This year’s international climate change conference, COP28, will be the first such conference to have a major focus on food, which the UAE as COP28 president sees as important aspect of its agenda. 

This is long overdue: food systems are responsible for about a third of all greenhouse gases produced by human activity. Modern farming methods are the most significant drivers of biodiversity loss. In turn, the world’s ability to provide healthy diets (‘food security’) is threatened by the impacts of climate change, with severe weather like storms and drought affecting the ability to produce and transport food.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine have also emphasized the global food system’s lack of resilience, and how easily events drive up food prices.

The World Bank estimates that high food prices are widespread across the world, affecting 52 per cent of low-income countries, 89 per cent of lower-middle-income countries, 61 per cent of upper-middle-income countries and 67 per cent of high-income countries. 

In addition, the data is increasingly solid that the global cost of poor diets (especially from obesity and non-communicable diseases, like heart disease and cancer, but also from insufficient calories and nutrients) are $9 trillion per year, with the environmental costs of food production and consumption being a further $3 trillion.

This is over 10 per cent of global GDP, and perhaps three to four times the economic value of the entire agricultural sector. 

Transforming food systems therefore has to be a priority for the COP28 agenda: to build resilience, provide healthier diets for all, and to reduce the environmental impacts. But it will also be extremely difficult to reach agreement on the kind of transformative change required.

Food systems

Up to and including COP26 in Glasgow, discussions of food were either absent or confined to the prime sources of emissions, sometimes abbreviated as AFOLU – agriculture, forestry and other land uses.

The focus on AFOLU created an overt ‘supply-side’ focus on reducing deforestation and innovating in agriculture to reduce the intensity of emissions per unit of product. But that approach fails to tackle how agricultural products are used.

A ‘food systems’ approach recognizes that supply and demand are interlinked – and that an important way to change agriculture is to change the way agricultural products are used

A ‘food systems’ approach recognizes that supply and demand are interlinked – and that an important way to change agriculture is to change the way agricultural products are used. Reducing waste is an important and prime example: about 17 per cent of all food grown is lost or wasted, amounting to perhaps as much as 8 per cent of all emissions.

But the real political flashpoint at climate negotiations will be around changing consumption patterns, particularly of meat and dairy products – as these emit far more per kilo than nutrition derived from plants.  

All together production of animal-sourced foods accounts for two thirds of food’s emissions, and nearly 80 per cent of agriculture’s land footprint – yet provides only 19 per cent of global calories and 41 per cent of proteins.

Food politics

The politics of food system transformation is inherently tricky, wrapped up in economic development and polarized discourse. 

Many countries grudgingly see the necessity of changing the food system to be more healthy, sustainable and resilient, but there are highly contested views about how to achieve this – most of all in how to tackle demand. 

Seeking to reduce demand for meat and dairy products runs counter to many countries’ economic growth plans

Seeking to reduce demand for meat and dairy products runs counter to many countries’ economic growth plans, which prioritize increasing productivity for exports and their own food security.

Others have an ideological objection to governments intervening in markets to reduce consumption of meat and dairy products, arguing that if there is a demand markets should be allowed to serve it.

Like energy, food production and the role of government in shaping consumption habits has become a wedge issue in many countries, wielded in an increasingly polarized politics.

Short term thinking

At COP28, the presidency agenda asks countries to sign a leaders’ declaration that countries recognize the need to transform food systems to tackle the interplay between agriculture, food and climate. 

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But the post-Ukraine energy crisis has shown that many governments prioritize ensuring supply over driving transformation of the systems – despite the existential long-term risks of delaying change.

Food systems transformation is perhaps inherently more complex and more politicized even than the energy agenda

Food systems transformation is perhaps inherently more complex and more politicized even than the energy agenda.

Tackling the perceived trade-off between economic growth, public health security (underpinned by food security in the sense of nutritious diets), and sustainability is at the heart of many countries domestic concerns. 

The question is political and geopolitical, and like climate action in general the urgent need for action is not matched by an enabling political will: the UN’s Global Stocktake shows that the world’s collective action is not taking place at the pace and scale needed to meet the Paris goals. 

Ambitions for COP28 therefore need to be that the focus of the negotiations widens beyond energy systems to include food systems.

Crucially, there must be recognition – if not from all countries, but from some – that food systems transformation is not only a matter of delivering on climate goals, but also on ensuring food security, better global health and protecting biodiversity.