The global food system, a major driver of the climate crisis, was given a prominent place on the stage at the 2023 United Nations Climate Conference, which is set to conclude today, with negotiations continuing into overtime. Known as COP28, the event brought over 90,000 registered delegates to Dubai as world leaders there have worked to shape the global response to the escalating climate crisis.
On the first day of the gathering, delegates from 152 countries signed a global declaration for food systems transformation. And for the first time in its history, the conference devoted an entire day to food, agriculture, and water.
In opening remarks that day, Susan Gardner, director of the U.N.’s ecosystems division, highlighted the dangerous cycle of unsustainable agriculture. “Let’s be clear: we know our current food systems are broken,” she said. “Agriculture alone is responsible for 60 percent of biodiversity loss. It generates about a third of greenhouse gas emissions globally.”
However, food and agriculture won’t likely get much airtime in the much-debated Global Stocktake, the key document resulting from the conference’s negotiations. The stocktake represents an important juncture in international climate negotiations, and has been described by the U.N. as “taking an inventory” of global climate progress. And despite much discussion of food systems, the draft agreement only makes a passing reference to food.
Much of the attention over the last two days has gone to the removal of language about a fossil fuel phaseout in the draft, but questions also remain about why food systems were largely left out of the agreement. And it’s clear that the negotiations didn’t occur in a vacuum. Three hundred and forty agribusiness lobbyists—a record number—attended the conference, and most where from the meat and dairy industry, according to an analysis by The Guardian and DeSmog.
While most lobbyists came as observers, over 100 gained access to the negotiations designated as “country delegates.” Delegates representing the industry-funded Global Meat Alliance attended with the explicit goal of positioning meat as beneficial to the environment.
As negotiations drew to a close, some advocates did push to include more language about food systems in the Global Stocktake. On December 8, over 120 civil society organizations, and even some corporations, sent a letter expressing “significant concern over the omission of agriculture and food system” from the draft. “The current draft is a far cry from what is needed,” reads the letter, which points out that the parties repeatedly addressed the food system throughout the process leading up to the agreement’s draft.
The U.N. also released a roadmap this weekend that lays out how to transform the food sector to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The document sets new benchmarks, including cutting methane emissions by 25 percent by 2030.
It also lays out pathways for livestock, fisheries and aquaculture, and crops and advises that “initiatives target regenerative farm practices, sustainable land management, freshwater management, advanced irrigation technologies, remote sensing utilization, inclusive governance, and coherent policies to protect land rights and improve water-pricing policies towards sustainable resource use.”
But those messages do not carry the authority of the Gobal Stocktake, which is a more formal pathway for achieving the binding targets of the Paris Agreement.
“Never before have we seen food systems on the climate agenda like at this COP. It is an unprecedented achievement,” said Gonzalo Muñoz, the U.N. Climate Change High-Level Champion for COP28, in a speech on the food system day. “However, there is still a huge gap in translating these intentions into action.”
Aiming to narrow this gap, on December 10th, Muñoz led the development of a manifesto calling for the urgent need to transform food systems, especially by supporting and directly financing the knowledge of small producers and Indigenous people. The manifesto also calls for an agreed upon set of global targets. It has since been signed by over 200 non-state actors— rom farmers and fishers to businesses, cities, civil society, consumers and all those engaged in food systems—who are hoping that governments will support those who have long tended to the earth.
In total, COP28 has resulted in pledges of more than $7.8 billion in funding for climate action in the food sector, according to the conference’s organizers. Yet it’s unclear how much of this funding will reach small-scale producers or Indigenous people.
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Author: Grey Moran