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Trending at COP25: Promising Movement on Food Systems

By: Erin Biehl

MADRID—Dec. 13, 2019. In December, I attended the 25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (aka “COP25”) in Madrid. It was my third climate conference, and although there are still plenty of acronyms to learn, I think I might finally understand where food systems and public health fit into this complex, jargon-laden gathering of diplomats, policy wonks, academics, and activists. Here are my takeaways (decoded and defined) on what happened with regard to creating a healthier, more sustainable food system—and what to look for next.

Takeaway #1: There were more side events focused on food systems than I’ve ever seen!
Side Events: the (mostly) panel presentations that happen outside of the official negotiation space, where civil society groups like universities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) share information about how they think governments should solve climate change, even though most of the government representatives are in another room negotiating.

Compared to past years, COP25 was a cornucopia of events focused on food systems, where people talked about many of my favorite topics, such as reducing food waste and loss, shifting toward more plant-centric diets, and supporting agricultural resilience and nutrition in climate policy. For years, the topic of food has been the elephant in the room at climate talks, despite being a critical aspect of both stopping and adapting to climate change. In December, food finally got the attention it deserved in the civil society space. Hopefully, this means a door has opened, and there will be more opportunities to discuss how to build more sustainable food systems through climate change policy.

Takeaway #2: Somebody finally mentioned meat consumption on the “main stage” at the KJWA.
Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA): A series of workshops where experts and representatives from countries, businesses, advocacy groups, and others share with country delegates their views on the “best” ways to include agriculture in climate policy goals. Afterward, countries negotiate on what they want to do with the information they’ve received in the workshops.

The KJWA workshop in Madrid focused on “improved nutrient use” and “manure management.” For those of us who don’t speak UN, that means “What kind of fertilizers (natural or synthetic) are best at growing a lot of food, without worsening climate change and other environmental problems?” This may not at first sound relevant to meat consumption, but livestock production plays an important role in nutrient use and management, because industrial animal production relies on animals eating a lot of feed crops, which are typically reliant on large quantities of nitrous oxide-producing fertilizers.

During the workshop, Dr. Mark Sutton from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology connected nutrient use and meat consumption in his presentation. He shared how reducing animal consumption in high-consuming places like the European Union could in theory also reduce nitrous oxide emissions, because there would be less methane-producing manure and less need for feed crops and their fertilizers. Dr. Sutton’s presentation was the first time I heard someone at a COP speak directly to government representatives from around the world about dietary shifts as a potential climate change solution. I’ll be interested to see what direction the KJWA workshops take at the UN’s mid-year climate meeting in June. At the upcoming meeting, countries will hear from still more experts about “improved livestock management systems” and the “socioeconomic and food security dimensions of climate change in the agricultural sector.” I think it’s safe to say the issue of dietary shifts and meat consumption will probably come up again.

Takeaway #3: The health people get it!
No jargon or definitions here, just pure inspiration.

Outside of the vast UN conference halls, a parallel event in Madrid focused on climate change and health both walked the walk and talked the talk. Convened by the Global Climate and Health Alliance and the World Health Organization, the annual Global Climate and Health Summit packed a Saturday full of talks from inspiring, motivated health researchers and practitioners all working to prevent the health impacts of climate change. During the event, I helped facilitate a breakout discussion with Cristina Tirado from Loyola Marymount University focused on connections between food, climate, and health. I talked with nurses, medical students, dietitians, health researchers, and many others who were all passionately invested in making the food system both healthier and more sustainable. The health and climate crew has traditionally focused on air pollution, so this short but inspiring session on food gave me hope that the winds are changing and more health people “get it” when it comes to including food systems in the climate and health conversation. Perhaps even more promising, the event served only plant-based lunch and hors-d’oeuvres, something seldom seen at COP events.

There is a rumor that the next COP, which will occur in Glasgow in November, might include health as a key theme of the conference. If this happens, it will be a great opportunity for organizations like the Center for a Livable Future to advance the messages about the connections between food systems, climate change, and health.

What does this mean for a more livable future?

Despite criticism that COP25 failed to deliver necessary commitments, the focus on food throughout the conference gave me hope for the future. The evidence on what exactly a sustainable, healthy food system should look like is ever evolving, but there seems to be an opening now for more dialogue on how to get there. Food may be on the climate menu now, but we all need to make sure the right food is there. That means ensuring that future discussions of agriculture and food systems in climate policy don’t leave out other important functions and impacts of food systems. We need to not just ask countries and NGOs, “Why aren’t you talking about food and climate?” but also, “What are the public health, environmental, economic, social, and cultural impacts of climate-friendly food systems?”

My favorite quote of the conference came from the World Bank’s Martien van Nieuwkoop, who said during a presentation and in a blogpost that we need to “redefine what it means to be a farmer in the 21st century: a farmer is not only a producer of food but also a provider of ecosystem services.” More holistic perspectives like this need to be included in all of the talk and actions around finding food-based climate change solutions, if we are to build a more climate-friendly and truly livable future.

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