For nearly three decades of negotiations on ways to contain global warming, food systems and agriculture did not feature prominently at the annual UN climate summits. That changed in the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change being held in Dubai.

As many as 134 countries, which together represent over 5.7 billion people, 70% of the global food consumption, nearly 500 million farmers and 76% of total emissions from the global food system, came together to sign the Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action promoted by the United Arab Emirates, the host to this year’s summit.

The presidency also announced mobilisation of more than $2.5 billion in funding to support global food security while combatting climate change and a new partnership between the UAE and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that will put up $200 million for innovations in food systems to tackle climate change.

“There is no path to achieving the goals of the Paris climate agreement and keeping 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach that does not urgently address the interactions between food systems, agriculture, and climate,” Mariam Almheiri, the UAE’s climate change minister and lead of COP28 food systems, said in a statement. “Countries must put food systems and agriculture at the heart of their climate ambitions, addressing both global emissions and protecting the lives and livelihoods of farmers living on the frontline of climate change.”

The landmark 2015 Paris climate pact mandates restricting global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial times and making efforts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

Regenerative farming

The Dubai food declaration will lead to food and farm organisations joining forces to scale up regenerative agriculture, transitioning 160 million hectares to regenerative farming by 2030, accompanied by $2.2 billion in future investment and engaging 3.6 million farmers worldwide, the COP28 presidency said. Regenerative farming focuses on restoring and improving the health of the soil, rather than depleting it over time.

While the focus of international climate negotiations remains on fossil fuels and finance, it is often overlooked that food systems are a major cause of climate change, contributing about a third (in the range of 21–37%) of the total greenhouse gas emissions through farming and land use, storage, transport, packaging, processing, retail and consumption, research published in January 2023 has showed.

“We stress that any path to fully achieving the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement must include agriculture and food systems,” the declaration said. “We affirm that agriculture and food systems must urgently adapt and transform in order to respond to the imperatives of climate change.”

The declaration, the first of its kind in the annual climate negotiations, underlined the need for common action on climate change that impacts a large segment of the global population, especially those living in vulnerable nations and communities. It called for integrating agriculture and food systems into national adaptation plans, nationally determined contributions and national biodiversity strategies and action plans before the 30th climate summit to be held in the city of Belem in Brazil in 2025.

The Agriculture Pavilion at the 2010 India International Trade Fair, displayed modern technologies and traditional folk art to promote optimal farming methods. Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare (GODL-India), GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons

Welcome steps but lacks specifics

The declaration was hailed by many experts. It is a “wonderful development and the moment when food truly comes of age in the climate process,” said Edward Leo Davey, partnerships director of the food and land use coalition at the World Resources Institute, an international advocacy group. It “sends a powerful signal” that “we can only keep the 1.5-degree goal in sight if we act fast to shift the global food system in the direction of greater sustainability and resilience,” Davey said.

Other experts, however, were not so enthusiastic. Some pointed to the declaration failing to mention certain critical elements of the global food system, including those that are caused in part due to consumption patterns in the Western economies.

“The declaration overlooks the critical issue of industrial agriculture’s detrimental impact on people and the planet. While it acknowledges the role of smallholder farmers in food systems, it fails to commit to essential financial support to initiatives that bolster the vital role of these farmers in preserving ecosystems and ensuring global food security,” said Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, a collective of non-profits.

“We need specific actions and commitments to address the root problems and promote the transformative change required to effectively tackle the climate crisis,” Singh added.

That might not be so easy to implement. Any scenario to reduce emissions would mean major changes for agriculture, from how farming is practiced to how forests and natural carbon sinks are managed. Achieving these major changes could be more challenging for agriculture than for other sectors.

Although the pace of emissions reduction remains too slow across the board, other sectors have identified many technologies that could sharply reduce emissions. These options don’t necessarily exist in agriculture, according to a 2020 report by McKinsey, a consultancy. Agriculture is significantly less consolidated than other sectors, it said and reducing emissions requires action by one-quarter of the global population.

“The sector also has a complicated set of objectives to consider alongside climate goals, including biodiversity, nutrition needs, food security and the livelihoods of farmers and farming communities,” the report said. “The first step in reducing emissions from agriculture is to produce food as efficiently as possible, that is, to change how we farm,” it said. “A set of proven GHG (greenhouse gas)-efficient farming technologies and practices, some of which are already being deployed, could achieve about 20% of the sector’s required emissions reduction by 2050.”

India pavilion at COP28. Although big emitters like the U.S., China, large countries of the European Union like Germany and France, and many African and Latin American nations signed the declaration, India was notable by its absence. Credit: Soumya Sarkar/Mongabay.

Declaration a step forward

Despite the concerns, the declaration can be considered a step forward in including food systems and agriculture in the formal climate negotiations. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change did form a committee at the 2017 Bonn summit in Germany called the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture, which focused on agriculture and food security.

The panel has since been seen as the informal mechanism for discussing food at the annual meets. It organised a few events at the climate COP in Glasgow in 2021, but its visibility was muted. At Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, it produced the Koronivia Dialogue on the sidelines of the negotiations, a much-diluted document.

The document had the words agroecology and food systems removed from the text. Emphasis was placed on the supply issues related to food, but demand-related problems like loss and waste or unsustainable consumption patterns were excluded.

Seen from that perspective, the COP28 declaration is a significant move forward that could see food systems and agriculture being included in the main negotiation track in a few years.

India stays away from declaration

Although big emitters like the US, China, large countries of the European Union like Germany and France, and many African and Latin American nations signed the declaration, India was notable by its absence.

This was not seen as a significant departure from India’s traditional stand at the international negotiations on not committing to any timelines that could have an impact on the country’s food security.

This stand was reiterated by Indian Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar on November 28, just before the Dubai meet started. The country cannot compromise on food security, he said, adding that the government is making all efforts to make the agriculture sector climate resilient.

The commitments in the declarations include integrating agriculture and food systems into national adaptation plans and nationally determined contributions that all countries submit to the UNFCCC. It was, therefore, not possible for India to endorse the declaration without making a radical policy shift that requires serious deliberations with all stakeholders in the country, a top official said.

India will not be a party to any commitment that involves the agricultural sector, the official said in Dubai. India has always resisted any targeted action at climate negotiations because it argues that any radical move to change farming systems would harm the country’s rice cultivation and its large livestock sector.

This article was first published on Mongabay.