The run-in to the summit has been difficult, but can we come away with the hunger to really change food systems for the better, asks Simon Heppner.
The run-in to COP28 is, to put it generously, less than auspicious. Grim might be a better word. War, polarisation and inflamed geopolitics provide the backdrop to a meeting presided over by the chief executive of a state-owned oil company. Like the lost person asking for directions who is told ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’, it’s hard to see in this the most propitious starting point for the progress that is so urgently needed.
However, as someone who has, for many years, been calling for food and agriculture to be given more prominence at these global gatherings, the inclusion for the first time of a whole day dedicated to the subject of food systems provides a welcome glimmer of positivity.
Our food system is the prime lever of change in so many of the social and environmental crises that confront us, whilst also being critically vulnerable to the effects of climate change. These points are forcefully made in an open letter that has been signed by 80 global organisations ahead of COP28. Endorsed by charities like WWF and Compassion in World Farming and leading organisations like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the letter calls for the following to be in place by 2025:
● food system impacts to be included in country-level emissions inventories, and action plans in mitigation and adaptation strategies; and
● a systemic approach to food systems that includes, as a minimum, a focus on: nature-positive food production; healthy, sustainable diets and nutrition; and food loss and waste.
This is a welcome framing and prioritising of the challenge. While climate action over the last 20 years has mostly focused on the energy transition, it is definitely about time that we shine the light on food and agriculture. And it’s a massive undertaking.
Here’s what I hope to see talks focusing and global goals proposed for:
1. Decoupling food production from fossil fuels: Food and agriculture relies heavily on fossil fuels which means that, on current practices, food production will not be a beneficiary of the global shift towards renewable energy. Plastic packaging and fertilisers are expected to be the driving force behind nearly half of the growth in oil demand by 2050, ahead of sectors such as aviation and shipping. Shifting to regenerative farming practices that don’t rely on petrochemical fertilisers and circular economy principles that don’t require disposable plastic packaging seems essential for global climate goals to be met.
2. Reducing food loss and waste: UNEP estimates that food loss and waste is responsible for 8-10% of greenhouse gas emissions.
3. Zero deforestation: WWF estimates forest loss and damage is the cause of around 10% of global emissions and land clearance for food production (meat, soya and palm oil) is driving the majority of it.
4. Shifting diets: On the demand side, shifting the global North’s entrenched cultural preferences for a meat and dairy-rich diet to one that is more plant- based has to be part of the mix.
It’s good that COP’s putting food on the table. Let’s hope that everyone leaves that table with real fire in their bellies to drive the ambitious change in our global approach to food that has been too long coming.
Simon Heppner is co-founder at Net Zero Now.