Not just energy reform: The global food agenda advances at COP28
Top photo: NATURE+ lead Carlo Fadda, right, closes out the final session at the COP28 Food and Agriculture Pavilion, a collaboration between the world’s leading food and agriculture organizations, CGIAR, FAO, IFAD and The Rockefeller Foundation.
Phasing out planet-heating fossil fuels was again center stage at the United Nation’s annual climate conference. But there’s growing traction to put food system reform high on the climate agenda, and a new emphasis on nature-positive solutions to address the climate, food and biodiversity crises.
The United Nations’ 28th climate conference made headlines early on when 134 nations signed the COP28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action. This historic statement means the signatory nations, representing more than 5 billion people, will “collaboratively and expeditiously” make food system transformation part of their climate agenda.
Food systems and land use account for up to one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and agriculture is the leading cause of biodiversity loss. They cost humanity about $10 trillion in hidden costs, according to the FAO, mostly due to unhealthy diets. We waste about 30% of our food while more than 700 million people suffer from food insecurity.
Action on the food-biodiversity-health nexus is long overdue.
“It’s encouraging that food is finally getting due attention at the highest level for the costs it imposes on the climate, nature and human health,” said Carlo Fadda, the leader of CGIAR’s Initiative on Nature-Positive Solutions (NATURE+).
“We can no longer treat the climate, biodiversity and food crises as separate problems. They are inextricably linked and now we see that most world leaders also understand this,” said Fadda, who is also the leader of the agrobiodiversity research area at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT.
The declaration was widely celebrated, with CGIAR joining a series of strong commitments to help hasten food system transformation. Still, greater ambition, action and financial commitments are needed, as CGIAR summed up in response to the conference’s Global Stocktake. The final statement from COP28 only mentioned food systems but once, even as the total number of signatories to the food systems declaration surpassed 150 by the end of the conference.
NATURE+ at COP28
Fadda and NATURE+ had a busy COP28, as part of a large CGIAR delegation that participated in more than 80 events. Many themes long overlooked at the annual climate meeting were widely discussed across the sprawling conference center in Dubai, which hosted the largest COP ever.
Many discussions focused on crop diversity, frameworks for nature-positive approaches, traditional knowledge, the challenges facing Africa’s food future and food waste. All these issues have critical roles in dealing with the climate crisis.
Experts also widely discussed the benefits of regenerative agriculture, a term for several production practices that restore degraded soil, improve water availability and other ecosystem services, and help farming systems mitigate and adapt to climate change. This economically viable approach is increasingly attractive to investors and is closely aligned with nature-positive solutions.
Crop diversity for the interlinked crises
Increasing the diversity of crops – globally, we have many thousands of them, but rely on only a handful for most of our calories – can improve diets and help farmers adapt to crop failures due to the vagaries of climate. An energic, fast-paced event at the Agriculture and Food Pavilion brought together people from across the food systems to discuss action to integrate greater diversity into cropping systems.
Frameworks needed for nature-based solutions
There are several growing global movements to diversify agriculture. These seek to improve nature, biodiversity, health and economic outcomes for farmers. But how do we measure impact? This high-level session at the Spain Pavilion brought global experts and practitioners together to discuss progress on the frameworks we need.
“As time for action is now, we need to start transforming our food systems toward ones that can be beneficial for people and planet. For this, we need a shared framework to monitor whether we are achieving our goals on the interlinked crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and the global nutrition emergency,” Fadda said.
Food waste needs a seat at the UNFCCC
If food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States. This event hosted by the WWF Pavilion discussed the challenges at some of the ways we can address this massive issue for climate, human and environmental health. One path froward are Living Labs for People, discussed by Wei Zhang from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
Ask the elders how to integrate agrobiodiversity
Research has long overlooked traditional knowledge in the food system discussion. Several events, including this one at the Egypt Pavilion, showed that change is happening.
Fadda noted custodians of traditional knowledge will be critical to agroecological, nature-based, and agrobiodiversity-related agricultural initiatives because they have an innate understanding of their landscapes and traits of native plants, and strong cultural links to their land and food.
More investment is needed for Africa’s food system transformation
With 65% of the world’s remaining arable land, has the potential to be the future food basket of the world. If this land is utilized sustainably, Africa could solve its food and nutritional security problems, and even become a net exporter of food. While there is a lot of potential on that front, unfortunately, agriculture production is trending in the wrong direction and much more investment is needed, as noted by IFPRI’s Claudia Ringler at this event.
Fadda, who also participated, said, “By combining traditional knowledge and scientific advances, policies that support investment and advocacy for greater use of nature in agricultural systems, African nations can make their food production systems more sustainable, productive and nutritious,” Fadda said.