Despite being widely referred to as the “Food COP”, COP28 has disappointed when it comes to enshrining meaningful action to transform global food systems.

“The latest iteration of the Global Stocktake [response] text is 27 pages and the word agriculture receives a single passing mention and food systems does not appear at all,” said Amelia Linn, director of policy at the non-profit Mercy for Animals, a partner of the Food4Climate pavilion at COP28, in a statement published at the end of Sunday 10 December, dubbed “Food Day”.

“If the international community fails to address food systems in the formal outcome of the COP28 negotiations, Dubai will not be known as the ‘Food COP’ but will instead be seen as the COP that allowed food systems to be marginalised within climate action,” she added.

The FAO contributed to discussions at the conference with a report published on 6 December, which finds that livestock is responsible for 12% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by humans. The report, which forecasts that demand for animal proteins will rise by 20% by 2050 in line with population growth, suggests that changing patterns of consumption will have limited effects on emissions, as switching out animal products with “calorically equivalent greenhouse vegetables or out-of-season fruits flown from afar” could “potentially reverse many GHG emissions offsets”.

Commenting on the report, James Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, a charity, told Energy Monitor that the FAO’s conclusions “[appear] to be playing into [the] hands of the denial merchants in the industrial meat lobby, [which] are out in force at COP28, trying to deflect attention from their complicity in the climate crisis”.

In line with the FAO’s report, many of the food conversations at COP28 are focused less on reducing meat and dairy consumption, and more on how the industry can improve efficiency and productivity.

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COP28: educating consumers on food waste

On Friday 8 December, at a joint press conference by the US and United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Agriculture Innovation Mission (AIM) for Climate initiative announced an additional $9bn for investments in climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation to accelerate climate action.

Established at COP26 in Glasgow, AIM’s funding has doubled over the past year, now totalling $17bn for projects including a $500m agri-processing plant in Nigeria and a $460m project to restore 255,000 hectares of pastureland in Brazil.

At a press briefing following the conference, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Energy Monitor that farmers will be pushed to engage in more sustainable food production if consumers are educated on “proper eating” and provided with better product information.

In response to Energy Monitor’s question on whether Americans will need to reduce their meat consumption (and by how much) to reach the “North Star” of COP28 – the Paris-aligned goal of staying within 1.5°C of global warming – Vilsack instead focused his answer on how reducing food waste can both mitigate the impacts of climate change and reduce consumer bills. 

“We are going through a process of educating people – providing them [with] information [that] allow[s] them to understand and appreciate the impact of decisions they are making,” he said. “[The US government is focused on] teaching families… that there are ways they can save money, by being conscious and sensitive to the issue of food loss.

”We often find that farmers react pretty significantly to the market, and if the market is saying we want you to produce food… in a more sustainable way, farmers are going to respond to that. Part of it is education; part of it is making sure that we provide consumers with the information that will enable them to make an informed choice.” The government is working with schools to “convey a message of proper eating, proper balance [and] proper portion size”, Vilsack added.  

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UAE Climate and Environment Minister Mariam Almheiri said:  “There is a lot we can do on consumer behaviours – this is not a six-month campaign – these are years of changing habits.” Almheiri caveated this by noting that changing the habits of consumers from the UAE, which relies heavily on imports and is home to a huge range of nationalities with “different tastes and lifestyles”, is a “bit more complex” than in countries like the US. 

On 2 December, day three of COP28, the US Department of Agriculture, along with the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration, published a Draft National Strategy for Reducing Food Loss and Waste and Recycling Organics. It includes a $30m investment in ‘Composting and Food Waste Reduction Cooperative Agreements’ to assist local and municipal governments with compost and food reduction projects, as well as funding towards research on new packaging technology that will extend the shelf life of food.

Vilsack’s emphasis on the consumer appears to mark a shift from comments made two years ago at COP26, in Glasgow, when he told the Guardian that the US doesn’t “have to reduce the amount of meat or livestock produced”, because reducing the climate impact of agriculture “is not a question of eating more or less or producing more or less [but a] question is making production more sustainable.” 

Percival warns: “Make no mistake, a 20% increase in global meat and dairy consumption by mid-century is a recipe for ecological collapse.” He cites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “emphasis on the climate mitigation potential of plant-based diets in affluent populations”. Consumption of ruminant meat and dairy must fall by at least 35–50% by 2050 in the UK and across Europe, Percival says, citing figures from the Climate Change Committee in its 6th Carbon Budget, and from France-based think tank the IDDRI.

“The science is clear,” he sums up. “If we are to deliver the Paris Agreement and resolve the climate and nature crises, radical changes will be needed to food systems and diets.”