World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

a field of withered corn

COP28 and the Global Food System

  • Date: 29 November 2023
  • Author: Jason Clay, WWF Senior Vice President and Executive Director, Markets Institute

Most of my career I’ve tried to anticipate issues, or at least identify them as they unfold, build awareness, and encourage others to work on them and share their results with others. Being early gives one the ability not just to watch things evolve but to shape them directionally. Recruiting key actors with skin in the game allows them to “own” issues and solutions. It is much quicker, not to mention cheaper, to create change before investments are made in a wide range of different, often competing strategies.

In December 2011, Ban Ki-moon convened a side event at COP17 in Durban, South Africa that focused on halting deforestation. The event identified the global food system as a key driver of deforestation and habitat conversion. Christina Figueres, Jane Goodall, Richard Branson, Achim Steiner, and two or three others including myself participated in the discussion. There was resistance, including in WWF, to opening the climate tent to include food.

A dozen years later, concerns remain about adding complex issues like food production to the climate debate, as some feel it might slow or even derail efforts to move from fossil fuels to low-carbon alternatives for energy and transport. There has been much progress for energy and transport, but we still need strategies that make the transition cheaper, faster, and scalable by sharing knowledge, methodologies, experiences about what works and doesn’t, and technologies. As this critical five-year “stocktake” begins at COP28, are we reaching our goals?

As important, what sectors need to accelerate change? After more than a decade of little action on food, perhaps the most complex climate issue of all, there is general agreement that for food globally we need zero conversion of forests and natural habitat, and we need to halve the footprint of producing food. We also need to do this within the context of climate change, which is already affecting the productivity of renewable natural resources, as well as agriculture, livestock, aquaculture, and seafood.

We have wasted a decade trying to bring food under the same spotlight as energy and transport. Still, the effort lacks urgency. Some companies and governments have explored what they can do. Many have been undermined by roadblocks erected by others who want to protect business as usual. So, the question before COP28 is how to identify pathways to cheaper, faster, and more scalable reductions in GHG emissions from the global food system, as well as how to make it more resilient in the face of both the urgent and chronic impacts of climate change.

The collective response of people and institutions to climate change is discouraging. To call it slow would be an understatement. Everyone is waiting for others to act. We don’t seem to be able to move forward without a quorum. But what is that in practice — 10%, 25%, 50%? If we don’t start building momentum, it will become harder and harder to do so.

Most food producers and companies are waiting for governments to raise the bar to see what will be required. We can only reduce the footprint of food by half faster if we work with the worst performing 5-10% of producers rather than the best 50%. Unlike most races, this one isn’t over until the last contestant crosses the finish line. Working together, sharing information and knowledge helps make that happen faster.

For the next 14 days, I will be writing a daily piece on LinkedIn about what we need to think about as well as how we might think about it. I won’t prescribe what to think because there is no silver bullet. But together, the pieces will suggest how we might anticipate change as well as look for solutions differently. Each will focus on a key issue or trend and how we might think differently about it to create a pathway that will allow us to achieve the types of transformational change needed to make the global food system more resilient.