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Food systems: the missing ingredient in climate change talks

COP28 in UAE has highlighted the urgent need for us to accelerate the transition to a future-fit food system that produces healthy and sustainable food for all. How is the food industry working together to ensure the we achieve a net zero food system?

11 Dec 2023
6 min reading time

Last year’s UN Climate Change Conference COP27 made history by including the need to build climate-resilient food systems in the cover text for the first time ever and highlighting the link between food and water security. The connection between climate change and food systems is even written into the foundations of the Paris Agreement. As nations gather for COP28 in the United Arab Emirates, stakeholders across the food system are pushing for food and agriculture to become even more central to international climate negotiations as we look forwards in this critical decade (1).

And yet, changing the food we eat and how we produce it has been an overlooked solution to the climate crisis for too long. Findings released in the UNFCCC’s Synthesis Report of the first Global Stocktake clearly show that the world is not on track to limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Rapid decarbonisation of all sectors is needed and, as the report notes, action on food systems is critical (2). 

Rapid action on food systems transformation is especially important given that food systems produce around one third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with connected challenges such as food waste, resource depletion and energy consumption. While we can’t phase out food in the same way we can fossil fuels, we can transform food systems so that they have net-zero emissions. With systemic transformation, food systems can become a major part of the solution to the climate crisis.

Currently, the food system is failing to deliver on multiple fronts with devastating consequences for people and the planet. Why? There are too few compelling examples of what it means to actually transform food systems in line with food security, nutrition, climate and nature goals.

Rising to the challenge

Enter the Food Systems Partnership (FSP). It’s a coalition of leading international food organisations bringing together their diverse perspectives to achieve a shared goal: accelerating the transition to a future-fit food system that produces healthy and sustainable food for all (3).

Having collectively hosted the first ever Food Systems Pavilion at COP27, they are now building on this momentum to focus on convening and unifying stakeholders across the food and climate movements. The partnership includes EIT Food, the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU), Clim-Eat, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Carrier, and the Coalition of Action for Soil Health (CA4SH).

“There is no path to achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and keeping 1.5C within reach, that does not urgently address the interactions between food systems, agriculture, and climate.”

- H.E. Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment and COP28 Food Systems Lead (4)

Raising ambition on food systems and climate change

With the world close to an irreversible climate breakdown, it is critical for all actors to unite and collectively pursue robust and well-coordinated efforts to transform food systems in ways that are equitable, diverse, nutritious, sustainable and resilient. The FSP is therefore calling for all stakeholders to take ambitious and immediate action. Only if we act now, can we still secure a liveable sustainable future for all (5).

To take action on food for healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems, policy makers and non-state actors must deliver on the following targets:

  • State actors must ensure the outcome of the First Global Stocktake recognises the importance of food systems transformation (6).
  • Non-state actors must sign the Action Statement of Non-State Actors — a call to action for global targets and transition pathways for transforming food systems by COP29 at the latest — to unlock the potential of food for people, nature and climate (7).
  • Non-state actors must accelerate food systems transformation by setting, disclosing and annually reporting on progress against GHG mitigation targets in line with the Science Based Target initiative (SBTi), as well as climate- and nature-related financial risks in line with the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) and Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) by 2030 (8).

In addition, all stakeholders must pull together to finance our global and interconnected food systems. The proportion of climate finance being invested to transform food systems should be rapidly scaled, and approximately $400bn of the over $600bn a year spent globally on agricultural subsidies should be repurposed to deliver more sustainable and equitable food production, food security and nutrition goals (9).

Action on food for people and planet

With the growing need for a more socially responsible and climate-smart food system, innovation and collaboration are now widely recognised as an essential tool to accelerating sustainable change across the global food sector. In recent years, the sustainable food ecosystem has witnessed a surge in startup activity and corporate collaboration.

Some of which are multi-stakeholder coalitions, such as the European Carbon+ Farming Coalition that aims to decarbonise the European food system while maximising other benefits such as soil health and farmer resilience. Agriculture in Europe is responsible for 10% of GHG emissions, and a transformation of the sector could be a sizeable contributor to Europe’s net-zero emissions plan but will require ambitious collaboration along the entire value chain and alignment across European countries.

Carbon Harvesters: helping farmers monitor the impact of their farms

Others use technology to transform the food sector, like Carbon Harvesters who created a multifunctional platform that allows farmers to monitor the climate impact of their farms. This reduces carbon footprints while also increasing biodiversity and generating a new revenue stream. But most of all, it creates a more sustainable agricultural system that is farmer-led. Most farmers care deeply about the environment, but significant environmental pressures are decreasing their margins in what is an already volatile industry. Accordingly, Carbon Harvesters not only helps the environment, it also helps to alleviate the farmers’ current economic pressures.

And some innovative initiatives run multi-country consumer studies, like the Consumer Observatory, which recently revealed public support for a universal eco-label that would inform consumers about the impact that food products have on the climate and society. Currently, there are no internationally agreed standards for environmental sustainability labelling and no agreement on what sustainable production should measure. A universal eco-label would change that, helping consumers make more sustainable choices.


It’s emerging technologies and innovations like these that build the future of the food system. But to keep up with a rapidly declining natural world, growing population, and rising global temperature, they require support, funding and policy regulations.

Innovation can accelerate the transition

For the sake of people and the planet, we must work together to transform the way we produce and consume food. This requires a holistic approach. One that not only focuses on GHG emissions, but also addresses other planetary boundaries like biodiversity, as well as health, wellbeing, and inequality.

Accelerating context-specific and locally led innovation, regenerative agricultural practices and nature-based solutions alongside inclusive decision-making can create food systems that sustain and support food producers, communities and nature.

“We believe that science and innovation will bring about a more sustainable agriculture. We must work together to devise systems and solutions that are good for agricultural producers, good for consumers, good for businesses, good for our communities, and good for our planet.”

- EU Commissioner for Agriculture, Janusz Wojciechowski and US Secretary of Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack (10)

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

Urgent leadership and action from state and non-state actors on addressing the changes needed to ensure that our food system is able to sustainably feed a growing population in times of climate change is non-negotiable.

As a community of international food organisations, we agree that there is no silver bullet. We need a range of solutions to transform food systems to produce, protect and restore all life on earth, some of the most urgent ones being: adopting a circular approach, increasing restoration, encouraging dietary shifts, and increasing investment.

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to scale innovation and realise the potential of our food system to meet the challenges we face. Success requires engagement from multiple stakeholders – from governments and the finance industry, to businesses, farmers and consumers. We all have a role to play in ensuring a rapid and concerted uptake of solutions to accelerate food system transformation. The time to act is now. The planet cannot afford delays or excuses.

References:

  1. UNFCCC: Significance of the Paris Agreement (PA) under current context
  2. UNFCCC: Technical dialogue of the first global stocktake. Synthesis report by the co-facilitators of the technical dialogue
  3. Food Systems Pavilion: Homepage
  4. COP28: COP28 Presidency puts food systems transformation on global climate agenda as more than 130 world leaders endorse Food and Agriculture Declaration
  5. Euronews: Scientists warn we are much closer to missing key 1.5C climate target than previously thought
  6. UNFCCC: Joint submission
  7. Climate Champions: Over 150 Non-State Actors sign Call to Action calling for transformation of food systems for people, nature and climate
  8. Science Based Targets Initiative: Homepage
  9. World Bank: Transforming Trillions: Repurposing Subsidies for Climate Action and Economic Health
  10. EU Agriculture: EU-US joint press statement
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