Share this

As we anticipated in our comment a few weeks back, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) dropped its report, Achieving SDG2 Without Breaching the 1.5°C Threshold: A Global Roadmap, on December 10, the designated Food Day at COP28, which was held in Dubai earlier this month.  

The first in a three-part series, the Roadmap is focused on global targets to bring food systems within climate limits while protecting the right to food. Next year’s, in 2024, will focus on regional targets, while the final year is for individual countries. 

It was never going to be an easy task to chart a course for food systems transformation (the stated goal) that ensures an affordable and nutritious diet for all while respecting our planet’s boundaries. The underwhelming release of the report reflected this confusion and uncertainty somehow: the Roadmap was first mentioned in the first days of COP28, in the midst of a series of food-related announcements, although the actual report remained embargoed. On December 8, another FAO report, focused solely on livestock and climate change, was released. As this issue is arguably the most contentious of all the many contentious agriculture and climate issues it was guaranteed public attention. Then, the day before the official release, on December 9, a near-final draft of the Roadmap was leaked. The official report launch, on a Sunday just two days before the whole conference was to conclude, was thus an anticlimax. The lion’s share of attention focused instead on the showdown between the host country and its OPEC allies versus most of the rest of the world over whether fossil fuels have a future. (They should not.)

In our preview of the Roadmap’s promise, IATP highlighted three principles that FAO had committed to include: first, start with food security and nutrition as the central goal, rather than greenhouse gas emissions. As the Roadmap recognizes, food insecurity is largely a product of widespread social inequalities that must be redressed if governments are to collectively cope with the climate emergency. Second, policies need to be designed as tailored “portfolios” instead of one-size-fits all rules — in other words, governments need to embrace complexity, context-specificity, and intersectionality (i.e., energy policy and biodiversity and farm income are all relevant to the larger objective). Third, policy must focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions within agriculture itself, not join the chorus of corporate interests (gathered in large numbers at COP28) that wants to buy and sell land and farm practices as the ultimate climate offset for every other sector in the economy.  

Does the Roadmap reflect the three principles as hoped? In short: Yes and yes to the first two, but on reducing agriculture’s emissions, the answer is not enough.  

Food security and nutrition are centered from the start, and richly defined. The authors uphold the right to food. Ideas such as co-creation of knowledge, decentralized technologies, and transparent and accountable decision-making are all mentioned. There are frequent mentions of women’s rights and recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, too. Although, in the report released, there is no exploration of the implications of those rights for the policies proposed in different sectors. The Roadmap embraces complexity and illustrates how that might translate into mixes of policies. The authors recognize that different countries will face different possibilities and constraints. The best policy portfolios will take a number of objectives into account simultaneously, while decision-makers weigh the associated synergies and trade-offs to avoid inadvertently setting back either of the two joint objectives: protecting food security while abating climate emissions. 

The success of the Roadmap, however, rests on its usefulness as a guide to how countries can both cut and redistribute GHG emissions within food systems. Some places need to grow more food; many others need to diversify their agriculture, and to grow less of particular commodities. Most everywhere food systems need to cut their pollution. The Roadmap says this, but misses some obvious recommendations. For example, the Roadmap acknowledges the central role of reducing methane emissions in the contribution agriculture can make to mitigating the climate emergency. Yet the proposed solutions rely on a techno-optimism verging on fantasy (research and development to create feed additives to reduce methane from enteric fermentation on a commercial scale, and all within five years if it is to meet the Methane Pledge), while failing to consider the option of imposing stricter regulations on industrial animal factories now. The simple idea of making do with less in most developed countries, while encouraging increased and more efficient production in places where more food is needed, is sidestepped. The implications of a global transformation of food systems needs to be unpacked, not just hinted at. It means change for all, including those who are fighting hard for the status quo. 

Which brings us the biggest gap, if not the most surprising: the lack of any mention of the global corporations that benefit from the food system as it is now. Many areas of commercial food production and distribution are controlled by oligopolies, including seeds and fertilizers, grain trading and storage, and food processing and retail. Agribusinesses have fiercely resisted attempts to cut their emissions. These firms benefit significantly from public policies that underwrite their costs, including subsidies for animal feed, exemptions from employment law for food and farm workers and weak environmental regulation that allows pollution costs to be externalized. Another slew of public policies boost these firms’ sales, including farm income subsidies and consumer welfare in the form of food aid. Importantly, the models that the coming iterations of the Roadmap propose to use will rely on data and assumptions that ignore the effects of concentrated power, even though they distort the predicted outcomes of incentives and regulation. 

Looking ahead, what can we hope for? The penultimate section of the Roadmap reviews policy-making processes and makes a welcome call for inclusion and transparency. Yet this first Roadmap was developed with little transparency and no public debate. The authors worked with a select group of stakeholders, with no broader civil society or academic engagement. A whole lot more work, and whole a lot more input from a broad range of actors, not least civil society organizations and social movements with first-hand experience with how proposed policies work in practice, will be essential if Roadmap Phase 2 is to provide the persuasive and provocative guide the world so urgently needs. 

Related documents