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Eat less meat: Will the first global climate deal on food work?

Image of a tractor ploughing a barren field. Photo by Chris LeBoutillier via Pixabay.

For the first time in three decades, COP28 dedicated a day of discussion to greenhouse gas emissions from food and agriculture, resulting in the first global declaration on reducing emissions from food production. But, researchers in the nature journal say that not enough has been agreed upon in the deal


The whole agrifood system, from the farm to the plate, accounts for roughly a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. There are obvious ways to reduce some of these impacts by, for example, phasing out fossil-fuel based fertilisers and reducing food waste. Recent research found that roughly half of food system emissions come from food that is lost in the supply chain and greater focus on this area will provide quick wins. 

The UAE declaration on sustainable agriculture, resilient food systems, and climate action signed on December 1st means nations will include food and agriculture in their emissions reductions plans (Nationally Determined Contributions - NDCs), documents containing a country’s commitments to keep in line with the Paris agreement goal of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees. However, the declaration is not legally binding. While the UNFCCC outcome text referred, at last, to "Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems", the declaration fails to mention the phasing out of fossil fuels in food systems, for example in transport, mechanisation and refrigeration. Indeed, whilst there is now agreement at the highest level, there’s still not much specificity in terms of what actually needs to be done. This is a problem as many of the largest transitions that are required are contentious. 

Several examples demonstrate how reducing national food system emissions can run counter to other national goals: 

  • Reducing food-related emissions is connected with what we eat. Meat, dairy and other animal products generate more emissions than other food types such as fruit and vegetables. Shifting diets is a political, cultural and social issue. There are also difficult international relations challenges. For example, how is the need to financially support countries that heavily rely on livestock for development, such as India and countries in Africa to be addressed, assuming dietary shifts towards fewer animal products?
  • Governments often argue that safe and nutritious food that also achieves economic growth means prioritising industrial-scale food production. Such an approach, however, can give less emphasis to environmental impacts, the needs and role of smallholders, indigenous communities, and of those most affected by the impacts of climate change
  • There is also a nutritional dimension. While people in high income countries might be able to cut down on meat consumption without harming, and indeed potentially benefiting their health, that is not so straightforward in low-and-middle-income nations where meat is a rare but important  source of micronutrients for many, and where consumption is also increasing.

See further reporting by BBCThe Guardian and the New York Times.


Read the full article here and for more about animal-source foods and emissions, check out the TABLE explainer "Methane and the sustainability of ruminant livestock".

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