For the first time at a climate COP, food and agriculture seem to be taken seriously. On December 1, 134 world leaders signed up for a landmark agriculture, food, and climate action declaration that aims to address emissions from agriculture while improving food security and protecting farmers’ livelihoods. Country signatories include agricultural big-hitters Brazil, the United States, and China, representing 5.7 billion people.
The COP28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action marks a coming of age for a sector historically neglected in the COP process despite accounting for as much as a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is widely agreed by scientists that without addressing food and agriculture, there is little chance of the world meeting the 1.5-2C Paris Agreement targets.
Supporting agricultural workers and livelihoods
The Declaration commits world leaders to scaling up adaptation assistance for farmers, promoting food security, supporting agricultural workers and livelihoods, strengthening water management, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. In particular, agriculture should now be included in NDCs, National Adaptation Plans, and other national climate strategies.
The leaders also committed by 2025 to “accelerate and scale science and evidence-based innovations – including local and indigenous knowledge – which increase sustainable productivity and production of agriculture.” However, the statement does not say anything about the need to reduce meat and dairy consumption in rich countries or to focus on land-sparing in food production, both of which environmentalists say will be vital to reducing biodiversity loss and restoring ecosystems.
Responding to the Declaration, Alliance for Science director Dr Sheila Ochugboju said: “It is highly positive for the start of this COP to already see food and agriculture on the agenda in a big way. I am very encouraged to see specific mentions for science and evidence-based innovations in the context of a declaration which strongly acknowledges the continuing challenges of food insecurity and the need to address the plight of smallholder farmers across the Global South as climate change accelerates”.
Accelerating the development of innovations
Also announced at the COP was a partnership between hosts the UAE and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which partly funds the Alliance for Science), putting a combined 200 million dollars into accelerating the development of innovations that will help smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia build resilience and adapt to climate change.
The Foundation is also calling on donors to support the global agriculture research network CGIAR’s investment goal, which will help it reach 500 million farmers by 2030 and reduce emissions from the sector by one gigaton per year.
The Foundation’s co-chair, Bill Gates, made a speech at the COP also on December 1, where he touted the benefits of drought-tolerant and disease-resistant varieties of maize that were already helping farmers in Zimbabwe harvest enough extra maize “to feed their families for nine months.” Gates stated that: “Countries must meet the commitment they made two years ago in Glasgow to double the amount of funding for adaptation by 2025—including support for CGIAR’s goal of raising 4 billion dollars,” and reminded delegates that: “No other effort to adapt to climate change will have more impact.”
Improved varieties of naturally stress-tolerant crops
“We are ready to quickly scale up proven innovations that already are helping farmers in vulnerable regions like Africa and South Asia adapt to more challenging climate conditions,” said Professor Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, chair of CGIAR System Board. “That includes increasing access to improved varieties of naturally stress-tolerant crops like cassava and millets, employing new tools and strategies farmers are using to support healthy ecosystems by reviving degraded lands, and providing long-range climate forecasts that help farmers anticipate and navigate weather extremes and shifting rainfall patterns.”
“There is no path to achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and keeping 1.5C within reach that does not urgently address the interactions between food systems, agriculture, and climate,” H.E. Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment and COP28 Food Systems Lead, said.
“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 front line of climate change. Today’s commitment from countries worldwide will help build a global food system fit for the future,” she added.
Mark Lynas is a climate change author and campaigner. He is an advisor to the former President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed. He is the research and climate lead with the Alliance for Science, where he has co-authored peer-reviewed papers on vaccines, climate, and GMOs focusing on scientific consensus and misinformation.