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Food finally on the table? Five takeaways from COP28

Food finally on the table? Five takeaways from COP28

The curtains have now closed on COP28.

For the first time, food and farming were officially on the agenda - a necessary and positive development. However, the influence of industrial actors has resulted, predictably, in brakes and blockers in some areas, meaning many will feel that this COP did not go far enough.

Here’s five key takeaways from COP28.

The fossil fuel era will end (eventually)

There was a commitment to “transitioning” away from fossil fuels “in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science”.

This was not the explicit commitment to phasing out fossil fuels that many were seeking, and whether it represents a success or failure will be hotly debated. Petrostates and oil interests predictably blocked stronger wording, but culpability also sits with developed nations who are yet to adequately invest in a clean energy transition for developing nations. Stronger leadership, and financing, is needed from the UK and other affluent governments, both in relation to the energy transition and food systems.

For the first time, food and farming are on the agenda

This was the first time food and farming were formally on the agenda at COP, with a dedicated food day. The UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action was signed by around 150 governments, including the UK, and commits nations to integrating food and farming into their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement by 2025.

This is significant, as currently roughly 70% of nations fail to comprehensively address food, and the NDCs can influence both domestic policy and transnational finance.

The Declaration doesn’t include any firm mitigation commitments, but there’s some helpful language around nature, soils and resilience. The UK NDC addresses food and farming, but in a fairly tokenistic manner, and the Declaration might prompt a more comprehensive approach.

Compared to previous COPs, this feels like good progress. But as there are still no food or farming mitigation commitments in the final COP28 agreement, where agriculture is mentioned solely in reference to adaptation and resilience, there is still a long way to go.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation’s ‘Global Roadmap’ for food and farming is a mixed bag

The headline activity around food and farming was spearheaded by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), who published a ‘Global Roadmap’ for delivering the Sustainable Development Goals within 1.5 degrees.

There are strong recommendations regarding the ‘right to food’, plus calls for action on ultra-processing and dietary inequalities. Silvopasture and agroforestry are central, and there’s a nod to curtailing use of synthetic nitrogen and greenhouse gas intensive pesticides. There are vague references to dietary change. All of these are good things.

But there’s no explicit commitment to phasing fossil fuels out of food systems, and in many ways the Roadmap is pointing in the opposite direction, championing agrochemical intensification and industrial livestock. It needs to be much more agroecological in ambition. At next year’s COP, regional variations will be devised, with national action plans to follow in Brazil in 2025, so there is hope that this will be developed.

Agroecology is edging onto the agenda

Neither the FAO Roadmap nor the COP28 text give robust recognition to agroecology.

The UN Climate Change High-Level Champions, convened at COP26, collaborated with Non-State Actors such as farmers and fishers, businesses, cities, civil society, consumers and all those engaged in food systems – to develop a Non-State Actors Call to Action for Transforming Food Systems for People, Nature, and Climate. This call to action explicitly champions agroecology, organic, and regenerative approaches, while also calling for fossil fuels to be phased out of food systems. The Call to Action won’t be as influential as the FAO Roadmap or the COP28 text, but it might still help mobilise collective action and channel investment and finance into agroecological solutions.

We need to accelerate domestic action on food, farming and climate

UK representation at COP was hindered by the ministerial lead retreating to London at the crucial moment to vote on the Rwanda Bill - but COP28 might still provide impetus on food, farming and climate in a domestic context.

As a priority, the UK Government/the Climate Change Committee might be urged to take action in relation to the following.

The land-use framework/strategy 
Ensuring it delivers on both mitigation and adaptation agendas, with agroecology at its heart, as the largest segment in a three compartment approach.

Seventh carbon budget
The CCC are beginning work on the seventh climate budget. It’s important they bring more nuance into their modeling, integrate nature considerations, and recognise more clearly the risks of excessive reliance on Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

UK Nationally Determined Contributions
There's lots of scope for this to be developed further, building on the UAE Declaration. This could ensure a more cohesive set of commitments to food system transformation, fossil fuel phase out, and dietary change.

Intensive livestock
The UK Government announced mid-COP that they would be bringing forward regulations to ensure forest risk commodities such as soya are not associated with illegal deforestation. This is welcome and overdue, even if the regulations don’t go far enough.

Diet change
As weak and vague as the FAO’s wording was, dietary change has been edged more firmly onto the COP agenda, with recognition that global meat consumption needs to be “re-balanced”. This is a start, and might be levered to drive more ambitious domestic policy.