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Food Systems and Agriculture: What’s on the menu for the 28th UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28)?

November 8, 2023

Food Systems at the UN Climate Change Conference

The UAE COP 28 Presidency has placed food systems transformation at the heart of its COP agenda—and with good reason. Accounting for an average of 34% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and supporting the livelihoods and income generation of around half the world’s population, ensuring a just transition to sustainable, resilient food systems is critical for both climate and development outcomes. 

Food and land use occupy a unique position, posing both a challenge and an opportunity to address climate change. A sizable contributor to the climate crisis, food systems are also incredibly vulnerable to climate impacts. And yet, food systems and wider land use also offer hitherto largely untapped adaptation and mitigation potential. Failure to harness this potential and take swift, far-reaching action to radically transform our food systems risks food production and consumption alone tipping us over the 1.5°C temperature target, with cascading impacts for food and nutrition security, as well as livelihoods and income generation.

What are “food systems”?

The term “food systems” has gained significant traction in international processes and fora in recent years. However, some ambiguity surrounding the meaning of the phrase remains. Rejecting the notion that agriculture and food production can be explained as a single, linear system of production and consumption, applying a food systems lens takes a more holistic approach that considers the people, policies, and processes throughout the agrifood supply chain. It considers how these shape food production and consumption and intersect with other systems, such as climate, biodiversity, energy, infrastructure, finance, health, nutrition, and development.

Why do we need to transform our food systems?

Food systems are critical for the livelihoods and economic development of billions of people worldwide. This is particularly true of developing countries, where agriculture still forms the backbone of many economies and a significant share of GDP. For example, food systems currently account for 62% of employment in Africa. With the global population projected to hit 9.7 billion by 2050, building resilient food systems will be critical for absorbing an estimated 1.6 billion people into the labour market in low- and middle-income countries in the coming years.

Resilient food systems are also of vital importance for ensuring food and nutrition security. Following over a decade of year-on-year decline in the prevalence of undernourishment, 2016 saw a reversal of this trend, with climate change and conflict driving the percentage of people severely food insecure to 9.3% of the global population. Fast forward to 2023, and this number has climbed to 11.3%.

Our food systems are a major driver of climate change and the leading driver of biodiversity loss. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections paint a stark outlook of decreasing productivity in existing areas of agricultural production, coupled with decreasing availability and nutritional quality of food, and increasing stress on the ecosystem services upon which global food systems depend.

Compounding these challenges are increasingly frequent (and increasingly severe) climate change impacts and changing weather patterns. Over 36 million people in East Africa are currently impacted by drought. As the soil has become progressively drier and its ability to support crops and livestock has diminished, ever-greater numbers of smallholder farmers and their families find themselves facing hunger as their ability to either grow food—or generate the income necessary to purchase it—dwindles. When rain does fall, the soil is too dry to absorb the water, leading to severe flooding. 

Recognizing the need to peak emissions before 2025 if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees or less (and noting that global temperatures will continue to rise until mid-century even if all emissions are cut immediately), it is imperative that we transform our food systems.

Without swift action to rapidly decarbonize our food systems and build resilience to climate impacts, we will struggle to meet the triple challenge of reducing emissions, adapting to climate impacts, and scaling up production sustainably to meet the needs of a growing global population.

Where are we as we approach COP 28?

All is not lost, however. Political will for food systems transformation has been growing, fuelled by increasing awareness of the importance of food systems for achieving both climate and development goals and growing public interest in how and where food is produced.

From the G7 and the G20 to the UN Climate Change Conference and the Convention on Biodiversity COP, food systems and agriculture are increasingly a topic of interest in the international summit cycle. The Hiroshima Action Statement for Resilient Global Food Security, endorsed by all G7 leaders (in addition to eight further heads of state and the European Union), underscores the importance of increased investment in food systems to improve global access to safe, sustainable, and nutritious food. The Action Statement affirms support for increased investment in food systems, in particular scaling up support for smallholder and marginal farmers and building resilience to climate shocks through support for climate-smart agriculture, agro-ecological nature-based solutions, and ecosystem-based approaches to food production.

G20 leaders likewise recognized the need for greater research cooperation to develop climate-resilient crops, in line with the Deccan High Level Principles of Food Security and Nutrition adopted by G20 Agriculture Ministers. This sentiment was echoed by African heads of state in the Nairobi Declaration, adopted at the first Africa Climate Summit, emphasizing the importance of climate-resilient and restorative agricultural practices for both food security and green growth on the continent. Similar language is also reflected in the Political Declaration agreed at the UN Sustainable Development Goal Summit in New York in September and in the language of the UN Secretary General’s Call to Action for Accelerated Food Systems Transformation at the UN Food Systems Summit Stocktaking Moment.

Political will for food systems transformation is clearly growing. COP 28 provides an opportunity for governments and non-state actors already championing the agenda to leverage this momentum to encourage less ambitious governments to act.

What do we need from COP 28?

As a water-scarce country already experiencing first-hand the effects of climate impacts and changing weather patterns on agricultural production, the UAE has signalled its intent to use the COP 28 Presidency to elevate food systems within the climate negotiations. Below, we set out priority negotiated and non-negotiated outcomes to help ensure that COP 28 turns emergent political will for food systems transformation into time-bound, measurable pathways for action underpinned by adequate investment.

Negotiated outcomes Non-negotiated outcomes
1. Emphasis within the Global Stocktake on the critical importance of food systems transformation to meet the mitigation, adaptation, finance, and loss and damage goals of the Paris Agreement and on food systems-specific indicators in Nationally Determined Contributions.  1. Widespread engagement with—and commitment to—the Emirates Declaration on Resilient Food Systems, Sustainable Agriculture, and Climate Action, particularly from large agricultural producing economies, spearheaded by a dedicated coalition of high-ambition countries to drive implementation.
2. An agreed workplan for the Sharm El Sheikh Joint Work on implementation of climate action on agriculture and food security, including dedicated workshops on agroecology (and on food systems as a whole) and a robust coordination structure to build linkages across the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as well as with opportunities for financing. 2. The FAO Global Roadmap to achieving 1.5°C and Sustainable Development Goals 2 Zero Hunger should set out an ambitious package of agrifood actions, as well clear milestones on issues such as methane emissions reductions. The FAO should also set out clearly the process and actors involved in developing future iterations of the roadmap post-Dubai.
3. Recognition that food systems transformation is critical to achieving a global adaptation target and the need to include food systems-specific targets and indicators in a global framework to measure progress under the Global Goal on Adaptation. 3. A strong commitment from parties and observers that a focus on food systems transformation must not come at the expense of a focus on the phase-out of fossil fuels and to recognize the interdependency of food and energy systems transformations.

With 1 month to go until COP 28, the clock is ticking, and the stakes are high. The case for food systems transformation and the need to translate political will into concrete action and investment are clear—as are the consequences of inaction for food and nutrition security, biodiversity, livelihoods, and economic development if we fail to recognize and harness the unique mitigation and adaptation potential of our food and land systems. COP 28 must continue to shift the dial toward action.