Worker in a crop field in Malaysia

What's Next After COP 28: Food systems

Slated to be a game changer for food systems transformation, COP 28 ended with mixed results. Our expert unpacks the wins and disappointments for food systems and what’s needed next.

By Claire McConnell on December 19, 2023

The gavel has come down on the 28th UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28). Food systems and agriculture were undoubtedly a central pillar of the UAE’s COP Presidency, but what do delegates take with them as they head home? What do COP 28 food and agriculture outcomes mean for domestic food systems transformation efforts? And where do we need to turn our attention as we look ahead to COP 29 and beyond?

Where Did We Stand on Food and Agriculture at the Start of COP 28?

Food systems continued to climb political agendas in 2023. Growing awareness of the unique role they can play in providing solutions to climate, biodiversity, and sustainable development challenges featured in international processes and forums such as the G7 and G20, the UN General Assembly, and the Africa Climate Summit. 

The UAE was clear in its intention to place food systems transformation at the heart of its COP 28 presidency. It sought to translate growing political will into concrete commitments for action and to unlock additional investment to accelerate closing the food systems transformation financing gap

In reality, the food and agriculture outcomes from COP 28 are something of a mixed bag. 

A Breakdown of Progress Against Both Negotiated and Non-Negotiated Outcomes Tracked by IISD at COP 28

Progress has been made on adaptation, but the ambition and momentum we saw during the World Climate Action Summit—with over 130 countries signing the COP 28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action—failed to carry over into either the Global Stocktake or the Sharm El Sheikh Joint Work on Implementation of Climate Action on Agriculture and Food Security. 

Negotiated Outcomes

What’s needed for sustainable food systems What the outcome was 
1. Emphasis within the Global Stocktake on the critical importance of food systems transformation to meet the mitigation, adaptation, finance, and loss and damage goals of the Paris Agreement and on food systems-specific indicators in nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Despite the inclusion of language on sustainable agriculture and climate-resilient food production, supply, and distribution, the Global Stocktake decision text fails to acknowledge the huge mitigation potential of food systems and land use. It also does not mention the need to shift food systems away from a dependence on fossil fuels and scale up renewable energies. 
2. An agreed workplan for the Sharm El Sheikh Joint Work, including dedicated workshops on agroecology (and on food systems as a whole) and a robust coordination structure to build linkages across the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as well as with opportunities for financing. The Sharm El Sheikh Joint Work negotiations concluded with no consensus reached on either a roadmap or the content of the work program. Continued disagreement over whether a coordination group would improve implementation of the Joint Work stalled progress. Negotiations will resume in Bonn in June 2024, over a year and a half after the Joint Work was formally adopted.
3. Recognition that food systems transformation is critical to achieving a global adaptation target and the need to include food systems-specific targets and indicators in a global framework to measure progress under the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA). The GGA decision text includes a target for countries to attain “climate-resilient food and agricultural production and supply and distribution of food” by 2030, as well as emphasizing the importance of sustainable and regenerative food production to improve access to food and nutrition for all. 2030 targets are also included for areas closely linked with food systems—water, health, biodiversity and ecosystems, poverty eradication, and protection of Indigenous Peoples’ culture and knowledge. 

Non-negotiated Outcomes

What’s needed for sustainable food systems What the outcome was 
1. Widespread engagement with—and commitment to—the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action, particularly from large agricultural producing economies, spearheaded by a dedicated coalition of high-ambition countries to drive implementation. At the time of writing, almost 160 countries have endorsed the Emirates Declaration. This includes large agricultural producers, such as Brazil, the United States, the European Union, and China. The Declaration includes time-bound targets, such as updating NDCs, national adaptation plans (NAPs), and national biodiversity strategies and action plans (NBSAPs) to include food systems targets by 2030 at the latest. It also encourages governments to repurpose domestic support to agriculture to better deliver for people, planet, and nature. 
2. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ (FAO’s) Global Roadmap: Achieving SDG2 without breaching the 1.5C threshold should set out an ambitious package of agrifood actions, as well as clear milestones on issues such as methane emissions reductions. The FAO should also set out clearly the process and actors involved in developing future iterations of the roadmap post-Dubai. The FAO Global Roadmap recognizes interlinkages between food and energy systems, as well as the need for subsidies to drive dietary shifts to improve health and nutrition outcomes. It also includes a target on food loss and waste in line with SDG target 12.3. However, targets for scaling up renewable energies and regenerative agriculture in food systems are currently missing, and the ambition of the methane emissions reduction target remains low and highly dependent on the availability and affordability of relevant technologies. 
3. A strong commitment from parties and observers to recognize the interdependency of food and energy systems transformations and that a focus on food systems transformation must not come at the expense of a focus on the phase-out of fossil fuels. There was a concerted effort from a sizable contingent of the food systems community to make the link between food systems transformation and energy systems transformation, and the FAO Global Roadmap likewise makes the connection. However, both the Emirates Declaration and the Global Stocktake decision text fail to refer to the critical need to phase out fossil fuels in food systems and to scale up renewables in parallel. 

Building Momentum Toward COP 29 and Beyond

As the dust begins to settle on COP 28, how can policy-makers maintain and build momentum toward food systems transformation into 2024? 

Firstly, considerable trust- and bridge-building efforts must be made between negotiating blocs ahead of the Bonn intersessionals in June 2024 and the next formal meeting of agriculture negotiators. Consensus must be reached swiftly on governance of the Sharm El Sheikh Joint Work, to allow sufficient time to advance discussions on a roadmap, operationalization of the online portal, and the content of the thematic workshops. 

Swift and decisive action toward the implementation of the Emirates Declaration is needed to build on the momentum generated in Dubai. The UAE should ideally convene a meeting in the first quarter of 2024 to iron out the framework and timeline for tracking progress on implementation, particularly on country efforts to include food systems indicators in NDCs, NAPs, and NBAPs ahead of the planned COP 29 stocktaking moment. 

World Trade Organization (WTO) rules on agricultural trade will play a critical role in a global transition to more sustainable production, consumption, and trading of food and agricultural goods. Countries that have endorsed the Emirates Declaration and committed to revising how they support their respective agriculture sectors should carry this commitment forward into WTO negotiations ahead of the WTO Ministerial Conference in February 2024, particularly ongoing negotiations around the reform of rules on agricultural support. 

And finally, the GGA sets out 2030 targets for the development of “climate-resilient food and agricultural production, supply and distribution of food.” Achieving these targets will depend on access to sufficient public and private finance. The FAO Global Roadmap is a step in the right direction toward stimulating increased investment. However, future iterations should ensure targets also reflect language in the GGA decision text regarding the need to scale up sustainable and regenerative production, as well as engage more openly and deeply with a wide variety of stakeholders—including smallholder farmers, women, youth, and Indigenous Peoples—to ensure investment generated is channelled to activities that best serve the needs and priorities of frontline food systems actors. 

We saw a suite of encouraging financial pledges for food systems announced at COP 28. Prompt action on these four steps will be key to ensuring they underpin the transition to sustainable, resilient food systems—and help leverage further investment going forward.