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After a whirlwind of a couple of weeks, COP28 is finally over – with promises fulfilled and promises broken, often simultaneously. It was billed as the UN’s first food-focused climate summit, but did it live up to the hype? Here’s what food system leaders think.
This year’s COP28 was always going to be controversial, more so than the rest. It was helmed by the CEO of the host country’s national oil company, who – four days into the conference – claimed that there was “no science” indicating a fossil fuel phaseout would help us tackle the climate crisis.
It sparked a frenzy, as fossil fuels became the main talking point of the conference – so much so that COP28 had to invoke a reserve day, as leaders couldn’t come to an agreement about the language in the Global Stocktake (GST). And when they finally did, it was deemed historic, but far from enough.
And that has been the case for food systems too. COP28 was touted to be the first food-focused conference of its kind, with a dedicated food and agriculture day, two-thirds of meatless food, and an FAO roadmap to keeping post-industrial temperature rises under 1.5°C.
Before the conference, it was reported that this plan by the FAO would encourage a reduction in meat consumption in richer countries, as well as a better livestock output in developing nations. The latter was part of the final text. The former? Not so much. There was a hint, but nothing explicit – and even if it were more direct, it wouldn’t have been good enough, given how crucial food system change is to the climate crisis.
Of course, there were some positives: the fact that food was even given a spotlight demonstrates progress. One of the biggest headlines was for the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action, signed by 134 countries. And 143 nations signed the COP28 UAE Declaration on Climate and Health (which highlighted the importance of agrifood in this context. Meanwhile, over 150 non-state actors signed a Call to Action for food systems transformation, while both private and public sectors pledged billions for more sustainable, nutritious and equitable food systems.
What do the stakeholders – the insiders at the heart of negotiations and leaders working to create change across global food systems – think about the outcome of COP28? We asked a range of food system players, including non-profit leaders, sustainability experts, think tanks and alternative protein founders, for their reactions. Here’s what they said:
Oliver Camp, senior associate, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), maximising positive impact for both nutrition and the environment
Progress at COP28 was necessary, but not sufficient. The Emirates Declaration and the Declaration on Climate and Health represent a major success for the food systems community, but the official negotiations could have gone much further in positioning food systems at the heart of the solution to the challenges we face.
Nonetheless, taken as a whole, this represents a strong platform to build upon as we continue in our mission to ensure that everyone has access to a nutritious and safe diet from an environmentally sustainable food system.
Andrew Jarvis, future food director, Bezos Earth Fund, backing climate and nature projects via philanthropic grants
COP28 was a landmark moment for food and climate. For the first time, food was in the midst of the agenda, and having 158 nations (and counting) sign the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action, and having an ambitious call-to-action for non-state actors signed by so many important organisations, was unprecedented. The volume and vibrance of dialogue amongst food system actors was a highlight for me, with controversial topics being openly debated. We need this to continue, unabated.
Unfortunately, what happened outside of the negotiations was light years ahead of what was discussed inside negotiations. The Sharm dialogue on agriculture stalled, and the GST gave only a cursory nod to food systems. For those of us working in food systems, this is just the start – we must deliver the commitments made in the declaration and calls to action. Implement, implement, implement.
Mirte Gosker, managing director, The Good Food Institute APAC, advocating for alternative proteins across the food system
COP28 was a mixed bag. I loved the energy of being together with like-minded people from all corners of the world, working collaboratively towards a more sustainable future. But then again, not all agendas were aligned, and I wonder whether the ‘circus’ that COP turned into had any influence at all on the negotiations. If not, the question is: do we need it?
If we were to bring in only the top voices – the absolute experts on every topic – and give them the opportunity to make their case to the negotiators, we could save a lot on carbon emissions and might be more effective in reaching our goals. But I realise that approach would diminish the plurality of voices, which is also the beauty of COP.
The ‘circus’ also allows for building stronger bonds and cross-topic connections, reflecting on new angles and ideas, and forging new collaborations. I’m very happy to see that the food systems were given more attention this year, and I foresee that they will play a leading role in years to come. I’m grateful for people of influence, like UAE climate minister Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri, Singapore’s minister of sustainability and the environment, Grace Fu, and Dutch MP Rob Jetten, addressing the need for more sustainable food systems and acknowledging alternative proteins as an important climate solution.
The launch of the UNEP What’s Cooking report was also very promising. Overall, I’m confident that we’re moving in the right direction, but I’m also cognizant that we’re running out of time. Change needs to come faster. And we might need to rethink whether the current way COP is organised is the best way forward.
Irina Gerry, CMO & CCO, Change Foods, making dairy proteins using precision fermentation
COP28 was a whirlwind filled with panels and presentations, side events, evening receptions and dinners with food innovators. 100,000 attendees buzzing about made it feel like the world’s largest climate pageant. On one hand, it filled me with hope, that so many people showed up to participate in events, conversations and negotiations. On the other, I’m not sure much tangible climate action will come from it, especially on food.
To be honest, it feels a bit hollow. Yes, there was a big declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action, putting “food on the table” in climate conversation, but it stopped short of specific actions or policies. There is broad agreement that the world needs healthy and sustainable diets, and that food systems matter a great deal for climate, but little detail on how to get there. I’m still reading all the different reports and digests, but I know climate action can’t wait.
We can’t wait for policymakers and politicians to come to an agreement. We must focus on action and impact, whether as individuals or through our businesses and organizations. The future we want won’t make itself. So, as we reflect on the state of climate and the world post COP, let’s think about what we can do and get doing.
Lee Recht, VP of sustainability, Aleph Farms, producing cultivated meat in Israel and beyond
I know that COP is criticised by many and, to some extent, rightfully so, but you can’t deny the magic that happens right outside of the negotiations. Hundreds of dedicated experts are pushing for a holistic and inclusive agrifood systems transformation.
For years, the agrifood systems have been fighting to be at the table at COP28, being responsible for a third of the global GHGs. This year, there were notable achievements. Not only did we witness a government declaration that over 130 countries signed on to, but we were also recognised at the GST level.
So, yes, the work ahead of us is tremendous, but I choose to remain optimistic and focused on the doing. Aleph Farms and the Global Cellular Agriculture Alliance aim to complement sustainable animal agriculture, and we are actively advocating for climate action, resiliency in our food systems and strengthing food security through protein diversification.
Elysabeth Alfano, CEO & co-founder, VegTech Invest, investing in public companies innovating with plants
For me, COP28 was an overwhelming success. At COP27, I could barely get anyone to engage in side conversations around food systems transformation based on the key pillar of protein diversification. Fast forward one year and a food system shift was not only a central part of scheduled panel discussions but how to financially execute that transformation was a part of many panels every day – not just on the food and agriculture day. Only two of my panels were in food pavilions. One was in a business pavilion, and one was in a climate research pavilion. This, I believe, illustrates the broad interest in and understanding of food as a lever for change.
Currently, only 2%-4.8% of climate finance goes to food systems, but food systems are 30% of the greenhouse gas emissions, and animal agriculture is 60% of that. Financing food fast to have meaningful reductions in GHG emissions, as well as reductions in deforestation, biodiversity loss and food insecurity, was at the heart of the majority of panels I attended and the four panels in which I participated.
Blended capital was the buzz phrase in my meetings. It calls on governments, philanthropists, and finally, private capital from Wall Street to work together to address the inefficiency of our current food system. For me, this has always been the only strategy that I see working and I am happy to see that many are unifying around this same approach that we have had for the last two years at VegTech Invest.
Like everyone, I am deeply encouraged that 154 countries to date have signed on to the Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action. However, I am more excited by the UNEP What’s Cooking paper and video that leaves no doubt about the math of animal agriculture and its destruction for people, planet, and of course, animals.
If I had a complaint, it would be that countries are understandably fearful of change and, thus, many are still not looking at food as a full systems shift based on the math of utilising our natural resources in a way that feeds everyone on the planet without frying it. Protectionists are still viewing the issue through the lens of how to keep the status quo rather than how to smartly manage the only planet we have for the benefit of all its inhabitants.
However, this is to be expected. A shift of this magnitude doesn’t happen overnight. Thus, for me, it is impossible not to feel positive about the progress made at COP28.
Robert E Jones, VP of Mosa Meat and co-founder of the Global Cellular Agriculture Alliance, cultivated meat advocate
The outcomes from COP28 are no doubt mixed. However, food and agriculture did take a positive step forward. Food systems are finally on the menu at COP, but now countries need to get specific about how they will pay the check. If we are to avoid the worst-case scenarios of the climate crisis, protein diversification needs to be one of the pillars of both resilience and mitigation strategies, especially in the global north. As a united industry, this is the message we delivered in Dubai through hundreds of conversations with ministers, NGOs, farmers, adjacent industry leaders, negotiators, and investors.
Ethan Soloviev, chief innovation officer, HowGood, advancing carbon and eco-labelling transparency
Food and agriculture systems took a significant leap forward during COP28 in Dubai – including the first-ever mention of “regenerative” food and agriculture in a high-profile international agreement. Although the negotiations missed a real opportunity to highlight food as a nature-based solution for mitigating the climate crisis, the inclusion of food in the adaptation section bodes well for further advances toward healthy, nutritious and regenerative food systems in upcoming work on the global goal for adaptation.
Tasneem Karodia, co-founder and COO, Newform Foods, developing cultivated meat in South Africa
As a first-time COP attendee, I didn’t know what to expect from the event. It was an overwhelming experience with so much to do and see. It was great to see the focus on food – it helped narrow down the focus and bring a concentration of food leaders across the value chain into the same room. I think there is great progress in bringing food to the fore, with the aim of breaking down the silos usually formed.
The difficulty is how we move this to action and continue collaboration. On a personal note, I have made connections with people I have only seen from a screen and it has helped bridge the gap on what we’re doing in the south and how this could be applicable in the north and vice versa. I look forward to seeing how these conversations progress to action.
Paul Newnham, executive director, SDG2 Advocacy Hub, drove drive global campaigning and advocacy strategy to promote food security
I leave COP28 feeling exhausted after a massive year and a big fortnight but encouraged to see food systems rise on the agenda. With 160 leaders signing the declaration on agriculture and food systems and many new initiatives and funds committed, it gives me hope. We have a lot to do to build on this work and turn it into more urgent country-level progress but it was a start. With practical teeth and commitment to CGIAR, IFAD and many others.
As negotiations come to an end, it’s encouraging to see food making it into the GST and GGA, but we need more for mitigation so that food systems transform to deliver good food for all without damaging our planet. We’ve made progress, but still have a way to go.
Avery Cohn, partner, food and agriculture at Ode Partners, using data and design to address climate and conservation issues
The headlines are likely to rightfully key in on the landmark progress on fossil fuels at COP28 and the finance that we’ll now need to mobilise for this. But this summit’s progress on food systems wound up being its second most important outcome, in my view.
Food employs three billion, causes a third of all emissions, and is the locus of some of the worst risks from our changing climate. Paris’s mitigation and adaptation goals will be totally out of reach without food. Yet although there have been some bright spots, the sector has traditionally suffered from challenging politics and badly lagged on ambition. So, even many of us who have long helped push for the COP28 UAE Food Declaration were surprised by food’s progress in Dubai.
We closed the summit with 159 countries endorsing a new vision and agenda on food systems and climate. Declarations are non-binding, but the GST and the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) decisions have a distributed array of ingredients that together closely align with the Declaration on Food.
For example, in the mitigation section of the GST, you’ll find references to key food-sensitive issues like non-CO2 gas (including both methane and nitrous oxide), the Global Biodiversity Framework, innovation to reduce unit costs, poverty eradication, sustainable lifestyles, economy-wide absolute GHG reduction targets, and aligning nationally determined contributions with low GHG development strategies. The adaptation section contains a reference to resilient food systems, as well as many promising practices.
Meanwhile, the GGA has some nice food and agriculture elements too, including strong language on nutrition for all – a crucial goal on its own, which also happens to encompass many of the key elements of resilient and sustainable food systems.
The sum of everything food-sensitive in the GGA+GST is similar to the COP28 Food Declaration. Each is stronger in some ways, weaker in others. Taken together, I think we’ve now got a rapidly emerging high-ambition agenda on food systems and climate that breaks down the siloes between development, nature, adaptation, mitigation, and nutrition, and provides a resounding mandate to lean in. We’ll now need to turn to implementation and resource mobilisation. It’s time to take the win and get to work.
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