COP28

COP28 Could Yield Fresh Start for Food Systems

Dubai conference hailed as “turning point” for agri-food policy and investment; but further detail needed after Emirates Declaration and FAO Roadmap.

Initiatives unveiled at COP28 have the potential to transform global food systems, but more policy detail is needed to drive investment, increase equity and align the sector with nature, climate and sustainability goals.

Yesterday saw the preliminary release of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) roadmap for enabling the global agri-food system to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 (ending hunger) while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to levels compatible with limiting climate change to 1.5°C.

The roadmap marks the beginning of a three-year process and is seen as a potential blueprint for implementing the pledges made by more than 150 countries which signed up to the United Arab Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action on the first day of COP28.

“We will look back at COP28 as the turning point for a seismic shift in agri-food policy and investment in the decade ahead,” said Jeremy Coller, Chair of the FAIRR Initiative, the investor network which campaigned for the FAO to produce a roadmap to deliver global food security while striving to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss.

The roadmap includes ten measurable and timebound targets covering areas including livestock, crops, soil, water, methane and food waste. It recognises the need to reform subsidies, support heathier diets, adopt just transition principles and accelerate GHG emissions reductions.

Responses have been broadly but cautiously positive, pending further detail expected both in the next few days and over the three years of the project. Following the release of the initial ‘volume’ of the roadmap, the FAO is expected to produce a regional one at COP29, focused more on costs and investments, and a third at COP30 in 2025, establishing country action plans, monitoring and accountability.

The Emirates Declaration commits signatory governments to including the food and agriculture sector in future nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and realigning subsidies with biodiversity and climate goals.

“We can hope that the Emirates Declaration is seen as an invitation to investors to be part of a transformative journey towards a more sustainable, resilient, and equitable food system,” said Diego Martinez Schütt, Food Systems Advisor for Policy and Programmes at the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD).

Last weekend saw a further declaration by governments committing them to fostering synergies and integration across NDCs, national adaptation plans and national biodiversity strategies and action plans, while scaling up finance and investments for climate and nature “from all sources”.

On Nature Land Use and Oceans Day at COP28, governments also pledged US$186 million to drive action on climate change and nature loss, and unveiled commitments on forests, mangroves, landscape restoration, nature finance and the ocean.

Realignment of subsidies

FAIRR said that the expected additional details are needed to assess whether the FAO roadmap’s targets will align the agri-food sector with 1.5°C, adding that it does not yet “go far enough” to align with the goals of the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). It also does not envisage elimination of gross deforestation until 2035, contrasting with a 2025 target set by large food conglomerates at COP27 last year.

“Investors and other stakeholders will welcome the focus on methane reduction and realignment of subsidies to support farmers’ transition but will want more detail on areas such as deforestation, healthy diets, water and antibiotic usage,” said Coller.

According to a 2021 report from three UN agencies, almost 90% of the US$540 billion in global subsidies given to farmers every year are “harmful” for the planet.

The UN Environment Programme’s latest State of Finance for Nature report, released at COP28, said close to US$7 trillion is invested globally each year in activities that have a direct negative impact on nature from both public and private sector sources.

“Subsidies are making it cheaper to produce animal protein in factory farming conditions which are neither good for workers nor for the environment. A shift to plant-based diets is likely to lead to a net increase in jobs,” added Lucrezia Tincani, Head of Policy at FAIRR.

Other experts also argued that the roadmap needed to be more radical in its vision for a future agri-food sector aligned with climate and nature goals.

Emile Frison, a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, welcomed the roadmap’s emphasis on a just transition, but said “incremental changes” to the current industrial food system would be insufficient.

“The next rounds of this process will need to go much further in proposing a real transformation of the status quo, by putting much more emphasis on diversification, shorter supply chains and agroecology, and on tackling the massive power inequalities imposed by a handful of companies that define what we grow and eat,” said Frison.

Context-specific responses

The Emirates Declaration commits signatories to “revisit or orient policies” across a wide range of areas – covering incomes, emissions, resilience, productivity, nutrition, efficiency and health – while seeking to address ecosystem loss and degradation.

As well as scaling up finance, signatories also pledged to focus on solutions that leverage local and indigenous knowledge, and improve human rights and equity for those working in the sector.

Experts said governments needed to reform financial support to farmers and the environment, with funding focusing on strengthening local food systems and identifying context-specific responses.

Dr Ruth Segal, Policy Lead for Food Systems and Land at CAFOD, said the declaration offered an opportunity for national governments to rebalance policy-making in favour of small farmers and agricultural workers.

“In practical terms, this means reorienting funding to the agriculture sector away from harmful subsidies and towards supporting farmers to shift to agroecological production practices; and funding the building of infrastructure to enable farmers to access local markets to strengthen local economies,” she said.

From a policy perspective, Segal added, governments should support farmer-led agricultural innovation, particularly in the seed sector, “where farmers play a vital role in saving and developing climate-resilient and diverse seeds”.

“Signal for investors”

The declaration should be seen as a “signal for investors” said Tincani at FAIRR, due to its potential to increase investment in sustainable food systems.

“Investors in the agri-food sector are increasingly aware of the risks from climate change and are looking to align their portfolios to achieve their own net zero commitments and global climate goals, however, this is not possible without signals from the public sector and adequate, ambitious policies that clearly state the goal of transitioning the global food system,” she said.

CAFOD’s Martinez Schütt said investors also had a key role to play in supporting the Emirates Declaration’s pledge on “inclusive, decent work”. “Investors play a crucial role in ensuring this inclusion across the entire food value chain. However, the reality, as highlighted by the World Benchmarking Alliance, shows that major food and agriculture companies are lagging in improving sustainability.”

He also said investors should be aware of putting too much faith in high-tech solutions to the address challenges facing the agri-food sector, as these can be viewed as expensive or risky by small-scale farmers. “Agroecological approaches consistently deliver reliable harvests and offer a practical, sustainable choice for these farmers. It’s time for investors to pivot, supporting farmers with low-cost, low-input soil and water management techniques that align with their real-world contexts.

COP28 in Dubai was due to include negotiations between parties on agriculture but these have now been pushed back to COP29. There are still expectations that the response to the Global Stocktake will include wording on food and agriculture.

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