Slow Food: Food Will Be at the Heart of COP28, But How?

Agroecology must lead the way to shaping a new food system

28 Nov 2023

After COP27 dedicated a pavilion to food for the first time, food and food systems now will be at the center of the discussions in Dubai, where the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) is about to start. The conference in the United Arab Emirates will run from 30 November to 12 December, 2023.

“Even if we appreciate the official recognition of the role food plays both as a driver but also as a solution to climate change, Slow Food will be closely monitoring the COP28 debates and their conclusions,” commented Slow Food President Edward Mukiibi. “The organization will check which solutions are being proposed for an urgent food system transformation and if governments will take the opportunity of the Paris Agreement stocktaking moment to revise national climate plans to include food systems with a holistic approach.”

He warned: “The risk is that the debate will ignore the complexity of food systems, the root causes of unsustainable food insecurity such as power imbalances and industrial food production and the fact that countries in the global south are disproportionately affected by climate change. In fact, it seems that the upcoming ‘Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action’ includes neither concrete measures nor targets to effectively transform food systems nor clarifies what more sustainable food systems should look like.” According to Slow Food, a sustainable food system is based on agroecology. Agroecology is not just a set of agricultural practices but a vision that focuses on biodiversity, ecosystem conservation and the skills and needs of communities. This is a model that can ensure long-term food security for everyone and is recognized and promoted by food sovereignty movements, think tanks and international organizations such as the United Nations.

“This is the first COP following the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report,” continued Mukiibi, “which unequivocally stated that we have to act now or it will be too late and which stressed again how the food system in general could be producing as much as 35% of global greenhouse gas emissions.” We must remember that the IPCC itself concluded that an agroecological approach contributes to food security, health, biodiversity and sustainability.

How industrial food systems are driving climate change

The modern industrialized agrifood model adopted over the last 50 years has had a devastating impact on the global climate and the environment, leading to pollution, soil erosion, scarred landscapes, reduced energy resources and an overall loss of both biological and cultural diversity. Under this model, agricultural production has morphed into agro-industry or agribusiness. The two hallmarks of the system, namely the increased use of oil-derived or oil-based inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and fuel for farm machinery and the production of monocultures, primarily to produce animal feed, have had severe consequences on the environment and jeopardized the economic survival of small-scale farmers. In this model, natural resources are considered as nothing more than raw materials to be consumed and exploited on a massive scale, putting our health and the environment at risk.

Big meat and dairy companies are responsible for a particularly high percentage of emissions. During the COP28 debates, attention will have to be focused on them as they will likely try to suggest high-tech solutions or greenwashing techniques to hide their responsibilities. Indeed, many potential solutions will be presented at COP28 and we can expect a battle over different visions of farming.

The spotlight will need to be put on the specific wording used during the COP. Terms such as sustainable intensification could come to the stage, a term often used in conjunction with precision agriculturefeeding the world and global markets. “That is where this vision will be in real antagonism with the agroecological one and where companies will try to hide behind greenwashing techniques and terminologies,” noted Mukiibi. Major agricultural businesses with high carbon footprints and some institutes and foundations are advocating for sustainable intensification, which is underpinned by the idea that industrial farming can and has to continue to grow, especially to feed an increasing world population, but can do so while causing less damage, producing more with less. However, this approach ignores the evidence that hunger is caused by access and entitlement to food rather than its availability. In addition, sustainability is often defined too narrowly, neglecting its vital social and economic elements, for example, livelihoods, equity, social justice and economic viability, which in Slow Food’s vision are key.

What is the solution?

“Slow Food believes that only solutions that address the challenges of food security, climate change, health and biodiversity loss and include a climate justice perspective should feature in the negotiations,” stated Mukiibi. “The IPCC has specifically endorsed agroecology as a climate solution, together with the empowerment of local communities, which can improve resilience to the effects of climate change. It also stated that a shift to sustainable healthy diets can help fight climate change, something that Slow Food has long been saying,” he continued.

Slow Food believes there are three vital aspects to the way forward.

Agroecology as a holistic approach

The only possible way to overturn a food system that plunders natural resources (starting with water and the soil) and degrades food sovereignty is to transition towards agroecology.

Fossil fuel phase-out

Food reform must go hand in hand with cuts in fossil fuel consumption. We cannot have a food system transformation without a fossil fuel phase-out, and vice versa. Focusing on food systems should not detract attention from the need for a rapid, just and equitable global phase-out of fossil fuels in all sectors, in line with the 1.5°C target. New research published by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food finds that food systems account for at least 15% of global fossil fuels burned each year, equivalent to the total emissions from the EU and Russia combined. Fossil fuels are used across every step of the food supply chain. Petroleum, for instance, is used to make synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and plastic food packaging. Fossil fuels are also burnt to produce energy to manufacture ultra-processed foods and to transport food around the world.

Transforming the food system

Food-focused strategies are currently missing from the climate plans of over 70% of countries, but such plans are crucial to shifting away from industrial methods of food production and towards more sustainable ways of farming, i.e. agroecology. “This would not only protect the planet, but also help address the roots of hunger, create jobs, improve health and protect biodiversity,” concluded Mukiibi.

On December 10, the first time COP has dedicated a day to Food, Agriculture and Water, the Slow Food network will celebrate Terra Madre Day all around the world, a day to celebrate good, clean and fair food for all, showcasing how local communities are putting into practice solutions to fight the climate crisis.

The Slow Food Youth Network found a different way to participate to COP28, a #FlashCOP, where more than 50 communities around the world hosted an event to make their voices heard.

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