Extracts from an article by Million Belay and first appeared on the African Arguments website. Million Belay is the General Coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and a member of IPES-Food.
At COP28 in Dubai last month, food systems were finally put in the spotlight of global climate talks. Given the profound impact of agricultural practices and food consumption patterns on our planet’s health, this attention is long overdue.
Agriculture accounts for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, primarily through the destruction of ecosystems and the conversion of land to high-input, resource-intensive systems. In developing countries, monocultures for food and feed – mainly soy, maize, palm oil, and cattle for export markets – account for 67% of deforestation. Our current food systems also consume 15% of fossil fuels annually and have hidden costs – in terms of environmental, health-related, and social harms – totalling up to $12.7 trillion per year.
Climate change has also already had a huge impact on food systems. Over the last 30 years, an estimated $3.8 trillion worth of crops and livestock production has been lost due to the kinds of disaster events whose frequency and intensity are increasing with climate change.
The good: forward steps from COP28
159 signed the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action, agreeing to integrate agriculture and food systems into their national climate plans ahead of COP30.
Over 200 research institutes, farmer groups, and foundations signed the Call to Action for Food-Systems Transformation, which included a demand to phase out the use of fossil fuels in food systems.
These declarations were soon accompanied by financial pledges. CGIAR secured $890 million to expand its work with smallholder farmers in low- and middle-income countries. The Bezos Earth Fund announced $57 million in grants for food system reform. Norway donated $47 million to least developed countries for adaptation, particularly for smallholder farmers.
On 10 December, the day COP28 dedicated to food and agriculture, the Alliance of Champions for Food Systems Transformation was inaugurated. And on World Food Day, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) also announced a “global roadmap” for achieving food security while staying below the 1.5°C limit.
The bad: missed opportunities
While this attention on food systems is welcome, there were numerous missed opportunities at COP28.
The Emirates Declaration failed to address the links between fossil fuels and agriculture and overlooks deep structural issues. The new Alliance is unclear on what it sees as the necessary transformations in agriculture. And the FAO’s roadmap doesn’t address structural disparities in food systems, lacks specific targets, appears to ignore small-scale farmers, and fails to embrace nature conservation aims.
Moreover, COP28 skirted around the critical issue of food-related emissions in the Global Stocktake (GST).
The only formal COP work stream focusing on agriculture and food systems also disappointed. In Dubai, the goal of the Sharm el-Sheikh joint work on climate action on agriculture and food security (SSJW), established last year at COP27, was to lay the groundwork for future collaboration. There were three primary components to this: i) deciding on a choice of subjects for three mandatory workshops to be held as part of the joint effort; ii) creating an online portal for workshop submissions; and iii) deciding how work should be carried out and synthesised.
However, there was substantial divergence around how the SSJW should be implemented between the G77 and China – a coalition of 135 developing countries – and developed countries. The former want a coordinating organisation to be established, but negotiators from the European Union and other industrialised nations objected to this and declined to commit funds to such a body. The discussions ended without agreement.
Paving the way forwards
It is easy to be frustrated by COPs and wonder if they are worthwhile. Additionally, it is understandable to question if they are worth attending as members of civil society. In a way, we don’t have a choice. We must use COPs to fight to improve our food systems and find ways to do so better through as we prepare, organise, strategise, and build coalitions.
Despite significant disappointments, recent momentum should not be lost. Communities affected by the devastating effects of climate change around the world did not get what they needed from COP28, but we can build on its outcomes in a variety of ways. To begin with, we can use new declarations and agreements signed by our governments to hold them accountable to their promises and advocate for stronger action.
We can also plan better for future COPs. Identifying fellow non-state actors with similar values and strategising with them can enable us to speak with a louder voice. Given the technicalities and geopolitics around negotiations, we could establish a cadre of African activists who grasp these complexities and who can guide our advocacy.
More broadly, we need to educate the next generation of activists for the present and the future. Finally, we must find better ways to tell our stories clearly and powerfully. We need to give platforms, in-person and online, to our farmers, fisherfolk, and indigenous peoples and weave their stories into a coherent narrative that we can present to COP.
This way, food systems and agriculture can receive the understanding and attention they need and desperately needed deep structural transformation can be instigated.