The transition to sustainable food systems: has COP27 made a difference?

Sancroft Noëlle Smits van Waesberghe
By Noëlle Smits van Waesberghe

For the first time at a UN climate conference, an entire day was dedicated to agriculture and food – and not a minute too soon! COP27 took place amid a global food crisis, fuelled by the war in Ukraine, extreme weather causing crop failures and food inflation rising at its fastest rate for 45 years.

Food systems have often been overlooked in climate change debates. Yet the agriculture and food sector is a major driver of climate change, accounting for a third of global greenhouse gas emission. Current industrialised, specialised, and chemical-intensive agricultural practices are responsible for severe environmental degradation, eroding the ecosystems upon which food production depend. Food chains lack resilience to environmental, economic, and social stresses and shocks, and can be rife with human rights violations such as forced and child labour, poor working conditions, low wages, and violations of community rights to land.

A system-wide shift is needed to pivot to sustainable and equitable food systems which can promote resilient and diversified farming systems, ensure environmental protection, contribute to climate stabilisation, and increase the economic and social resilience of farmers.

COP27 has brought about increased global recognition that food and agriculture are fundamentally intertwined in the climate crisis: it is imperative they become part of the solution. So, what themes dominated the food discussions at COP27?

  1. The growth of climate finance for food systems

The transition to regenerative and resilient agriculture will require investments. To date, food systems have received a meagre 3% of public climate finance. Most of the money funnelled into agriculture has come through harmful agricultural subsidies that will not address environmental concerns and amplify social injustices. Yet without addressing the financial gap that food systems face, we will not be able to meet the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement.

COP27 has highlighted the need to increase both public and private investments to scale up existing solutions and to advance the research and development of practices and technologies for sustainable food systems.

  • The COP27 Presidency launched the Food and Agriculture for Sustainable Transformation (FAST) which aims to unlock climate finance to decarbonise the food and agricultural sector and increase its resilience to support food security, especially for the most vulnerable communities. This multi-stakeholder cooperation programme aims to build countries’ capacities to access climate finance and investment, increase knowledge through peer-to-peer exchanges and stakeholder engagement, and provide policy support to embed agrifood systems in climate change policies.
  • The Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, led by the United States and the United Arab Emirates, announced investment commitments will be doubled to $8 billion. It is comprised of both government partners, and non-government ‘innovation sprint’ partners. The latter provide funding to achieve specific outcomes in agricultural innovation aligned with at least one of the following focal areas: smallholder farmers in low- and middle-income countries, emerging technologies, agroecological research and methane reduction.

So where should the money be funnelled?

While a clear roadmap for the food and agriculture sector is currently missing, the UN Food and Agriculture (FAO) – through the mobilisation of the FAIRR initiative, an $18 trillion coalition of investors – has committed to creating a roadmap to align the sector with a 1.5°C pathway which also ensures food security. The roadmap will be published in time for COP28 next year and will “allow companies to plan for the transition and investors to assess investment risk and opportunities” according to Jeremy Coller, Chair of FAIRR Initiative and Chief Investment Officer at Coller Capital.

Though the roadmap will provide invaluable guidance, finance must be channelled to achieve sustainable food systems starting today. The recent Breakthrough Agenda Report – requested by world leaders at COP26 to strengthen collaboration across five breakthrough sectors including power, hydrogen, road transport, steel and agriculture – has stated priority should be given to innovations that can reduce food waste, limit emissions from livestock and fertilisers, improve alternative proteins, develop climate-resilient crops and livestock and protect soil and water resources.

Many discussions at the Food Systems Pavilion at COP27 were also centred around improving access to finance for marginalised actors in developing countries, including small-scale farmers and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In Asian and Sub-Saharan Africa, small-scale farmers produce over 80% of food but receive less than 1.7% of global climate finance. They are among the most vulnerable to climate change and play an important role in ensuring food security and reducing climate impacts. If we are to achieve a sustainable and just transition, meaningful support and engagement is needed for these actors who are often excluded from decision-making discussions.

  1. The integration of climate and nutrition

Current food systems not only cause damage to the planet, but also to our health. We are a facing a ‘triple burden of malnutrition’: as many as 828 million are facing hunger in the world, three billion people cannot afford a healthy diet and around two billion adults are overweight. A shift to more sustainable, climate-resilient, and healthy diets could reduce both health and climate change costs, as was highlighted by the launch of the Initiative on Climate Action and Nutrition (I-CAN) at COP27. The initiative aims to foster collaboration and deliver technical support to develop policies and actions that reduce climate change and improve nutrition, particularly for vulnerable communities and children. Notable discussions revolved around the integration of nutrition-related action in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), in which countries communicate their climate action plans.

  1. The Global Methane Pledge grows

Around 150 nations have now committed to reducing methane emissions by 30% by 2030, up from 100 last year. At COP27, the Global Methane Pledge launched a new ‘Food and Agriculture Pathway’ which includes plans to leverage up to $400 million to support the transition of smallholder dairy farmers to lower emissions in developing countries across Africa and Asia, as well as to advance the research on reducing methane emissions from enteric fermentation (also known as cow burps).

  1. A (unfortunate) narrow focus for the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture

The Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA) is the formal mechanism through which the UNFCCC, the UN’s climate action body, addresses agriculture and food security in relation to climate change. At COP27, it agreed on the ‘Joint work on implementation of climate action on agriculture and food security’, officially recognising the important role of agriculture in achieving climate stabilisation. However, the KJWA has been criticised for focusing too narrowly on agriculture. Many organisations have urged governments to consider the entire food value chain, and address issues such as consumption patterns and food waste, but to no avail.

COP27 has created great momentum for the agriculture and food sector. Moving forward, conversations need to focus on a holistic food system approach to assess the risks and opportunities along the entire food value chain – from production to consumption to food waste. An integrated approach is needed to strike the balance of cutting emissions without curbing food supplies and removing the livelihoods of farmers. Only then can we make food systems part of the solution to the climate crisis and deliver on multiple Sustainable Development Goals.

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