Food systems have been on the backburner too long – at COP28 that must change
By Morgan Gillespy, Executive Director of the Food and Land Use Coalition
Whenever I got sick as a child, my mum would make me chicken noodle soup. It wasn’t homemade – normally it was straight from the can – but somehow it always made me feel better. Now, some 35 years later, when I come down with a cold or the flu, I still crave a bowl of warm, comforting chicken noodle soup.
That is the magic of food: it feeds and nourishes us, of course, but beyond that it’s emotional and memorable. It’s a thread that brings us together in times of hardship and crisis, ties us to cultural occasions and events, and weaves its way throughout our societies and daily lives. Just like music or art, it transcends language and speaks across borders and oceans. A single spoon of chicken noodle soup, in my case, transports me to my childhood in a way that no storybook ever could.
I find it incredibly sad then that our food systems are no longer working for us.
The statistics are heart-breaking. Every night, 735 million people go to bed hungry – a figure that is projected to rise as the climate warms, and the longer that conflict continues to rage in regions around the world. An even higher number of – some 3.1 billion people – can’t afford to put nutritious food on the table, and those who can are surrounded by unhealthy food environments that incentivise poor diets and chronic illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Our health systems and economies are buckling in the face of $12.7 trillion in food-related hidden costs, more than 70% of which are driven by overconsumption of ultra-processed foods, high in fats and sugars.
Then there’s the planet. The way we grow, distribute and, tragically, waste our food continues to wreak havoc on nature – the Earth’s life support system. The fertilizers we once deemed critical are suffocating our soils and waterways. Our insatiable appetite for meat is devouring the world’s lungs – the last of our epic tropical rainforests – at an alarming rate of 11 football pitches per minute. Where once our landscapes were decorated by a rich patchwork of small farms thriving with plants, pollinators, fruits and vegetables, they are now increasingly scarred by vast monocultures, stretching for miles with not an inkling of diversity in sight.
What we must remember when we tell this story, however, is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can build a global food system that can feed our planet’s growing population – ensuring affordable, healthy and nutritious food for all – and we can do it in a way that gives back to the planet. We have the farming practices and technologies right now to end hunger, replenish our soils and waters, restore biodiversity, capture and store carbon, and – critically – provide sustainable and resilient livelihoods for the 1 billion farmers and agricultural workers worldwide upon whom we depend.
The world has a golden opportunity to jumpstart that system this year: for the first time in its 28-year history, the UN Conference of the Parties on Climate Change – or COP for short – will feature an entire day centred on food, agriculture and water. When governments gather in Dubai for COP28 in 3 weeks’ time, the leaders of more than 150 countries will have the chance to take a first step towards putting food systems at the heart of climate action and transforming them to deliver for people and planet. A landmark declaration has been drafted, and on the 1st of December we will see who has signed.
But we know from previous COPs that signing a declaration is far from enough. Countries must act immediately – using all the resources in their toolkits – to start transforming their food systems today.
Governments will need to make tough choices about how they can leverage their taxpayers’ contributions to support farmers as they scale and advance sustainable and regenerative practices. They will need to assess how climate change – which is projected to decrease staple crop productivity by as much as 24% by 2050 – will impact local growing conditions, and work with scientists to develop new crop varieties that are both more nutritious and fit for a future of increasing heatwaves, droughts and floods. Finally, they will need to regulate – harnessing multilateral trade to ensure that we halt the destruction of our last standing forests without delay.
Businesses also have a major role to play. With their expansive supply chains, they too should be expected to support farmers with access to data, technology, funding and other capacity building resources to improve how they grow and store food. They will also need to take a hard look at the products they manufacture, and stop making unhealthy, resource-intensive foods that offer little in the way of nutrition. And they will need to teach us to eat, cook and buy food differently, using marketing and product labelling to promote healthier diets and prevent waste.
Of course, none of this can happen without finance. The good news is that there is likely enough money in the system to kick things into gear. But, as history repeatedly tells us, transformative change requires far more than a simple cash injection. It requires investment, and for that the world’s investors will need to take food seriously and account for the true costs of their transactions on people, nature and climate. If their investments are causing poor health or environmental harm, they must withdraw them immediately. If areas are too risky for them to invest in, they must leverage blended and philanthropic finance to give local innovations the buffer they need to scale.
And on the ground, we – as civilians and consumers – are going to have to build back better too. We must rally and hold our governments and businesses to account. We must educate ourselves and each other about the foods and practices that support farmers, the planet and our health. We must reprioritise making the time to cook – planning and sharing our meals to ensure the food we buy doesn’t go to waste. And above all, we must remember that food serves not just to feed and nourish us, but as an outreach of love to bring us together in the best and worst times.
We are still holding the wheel in our food future, but it will be taken from us all too soon if we don’t seize the moment now to course correct. On the 1st of December, at COP28, we need all players – including governments, businesses, investors, farmers and civil society – to commit to a better way of growing, distributing, making and consuming food while we still have the choice. The planet is sick. Only by working together can we provide that bowl of warm soup to make it better – for everyone.
The Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) will be pushing for this change in Dubai alongside more than 80 organizations, and I for one cannot wait to see the outcome.