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The three F’s of COP28 - Part 3: Food

Companies need supportive policies to achieve their regenerative agriculture pledges: will their prayers be answered at COP28?
Melodie Michel
The three F’s of COP28 - Part 3: Food
Photo by v2osk on Unsplash

As global sustainability and policy stakeholders head to Dubai next week for COP28, Chief Sustainability Officers should pay particular attention to three main themes: fossil fuels phase-down, climate finance and food systems.

The movement to make global food systems more sustainable is gathering pace: just yesterday, Cargill announced its commitment to end deforestation and land conversion in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay by 2025. The pledge extends to its direct and indirect suppliers of corn, wheat, cotton – and most importantly, soy, the second largest driver of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

Companies are making ambitious commitments to reduce the negative impacts of food production on the planet, its people and ecosystems, but they work with complex and fragmented supply chains often made up of many smallholders, and need supportive policies to achieve their pledges.

In fact, Cargill’s Chief Sustainability Officer Pilar Cruz notes that “collaborative partnerships”, including with governments, are key “to find balanced solutions for economic development and environmental conservation”.

Read also: With regenerative agriculture pledges, sustainability leads have their work cut out for them

It looks like these companies may have their prayers answered at COP28, where food and land use will be one of the central themes. “This is the COP where food and land use fully comes of age,” says Ed Davey, Partnership Director of the Food and Land Coalition. 

COP28: Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture

The conference’s host is expected to announce an Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action during one of the first sessions on December 1.

This declaration is modelled on the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forest and Land Use (which was signed by 143 nations with the goal of “halting and reversing forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting inclusive rural transformation”), with observers hoping for a similar number of signatories.

“The headline commitment of that declaration is that countries will incorporate food and land use into their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and their national adaptation plans by 2025,” explains Davey.

After the first Global Stocktake (to be released at COP28), countries will be expected to develop new national emissions reduction plans, known as NDCs, and adaptation plans by next year’s conference – giving negotiators a timely opportunity to include food systems in those targets.

For OECD countries, this may mean going beyond fostering innovation to reduce enteric methane emissions, and committing to a reduction in meat consumption.

“For many countries, including those in the EU and the US, the most significant thing that a country can do is make very explicit time-bound commitments in an NDC to address diets and diet shifts and in the declaration. There is some carefully worded language about that which would be powerful if countries agree – the US has already signalled it's going to endorse – because it's through reducing meat consumption effectively, that we can make the biggest single dent in many OECD countries,” explains Davey. 

Read also: dsm-firmenich sustainability VP David Nickell on climate transparency in animal protein production

He adds that in many other parts of the world where meat consumption is low, the focus will be more on adaptation plans to adjust farming to a changing climate. “It's a careful declaration which speaks to north and south, rich and poor countries alike,” he points out.

Food security and fossil fuels phase-out

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), the declaration should aim to reduce agricultural emissions by 25% by 2030, while also accelerating efforts to halve food waste and improve food security in support of the second UN Sustainable Development Goal, Zero Hunger.

“Food is a conundrum: it not only causes emissions, but nearly one billion people [do not get their] nutritional requirements, and we waste one third of it. So food systems are at a very important turning point,” says WRI President Ani Dasgupta.

Food systems are also estimated to consume about 15% of global fossil fuel output annually, and their dependence on oil and gas-based products is proving difficult to break.  

For example, the EU is close to approving sweeping nature restoration requirements that will mandate many food producers to set ecosystem restoration targets – yet it also just renewed a 10-year licence for the use of glyphosate, a controversial fossil-based weed killer that recently cost its producer Bayer Monsanto US$1.56 billion in court-ordered damages for causing injuries including cancer, for another 10 years.

Fossil fuels are another key topic of COP28, so any agreement to phase them down is likely to support the transition to more sustainable agriculture. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, “a focus on food systems transformation must not come at the expense of a focus on the phase-out of fossil fuels”.

COP28: Land use and deforestation

Additionally, world leaders will be expected to show progress on existing land use commitments, such as the Forests and Climate Leaders’ Partnership. Data shows that deforestation increased in 2022, but new commitments like the one made by Cargill are a reason for hope.

Deforestation to make space for crops can be more attractive than conservation for small-scale farmers struggling to get by, and research shows that not enough climate finance is flowing to food system participants. But a week before the conference, Brazil announced that it plans to propose a new “mega-fund” to finance forest conservation in 80 countries at the event – a potential game changer in making climate finance more equitable (another essential topic at COP28).