Cop28: UN targets agri-food industry with new climate recommendations

Ireland committed to continuing sustainable food production and becoming climate neutral as fast as possible, says Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue

Curbing meat overconsumption and food waste, eliminating deforestation and capturing carbon in soil are among the UN’s new recommendations to bring the global agri-food industry in line with the Paris climate agreement.

For the first time ever, the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has published a global food systems’ roadmap to ensure the world keeps to with 1.5 degrees of temperature rise.

It outlined 10 priority areas needing “mobilised climate finance without a delay” ranging across livestock, soil and water, crops, diets and fisheries.

“The overarching objective over the next three decades is to transition from being a net-emitter to a carbon sink,” FAO said. “This ambitious transformation hinges on altering production methods, adjusting consumption patterns, refining forestry management practices and integrating innovative technologies such as carbon capture.”


Targets for 2030 include reducing methane emissions from livestock by 25 per cent (already adopted in Ireland); ensuring all the world’s fisheries are sustainably managed; safe and affordable drinking water for all, halving food waste and eliminating use of traditional biomass for cooking.

Emile Frison of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems said, however, it was not enough to get off the “high-pollution, high-fossil-fuel, high-hunger track we are on”.

The roadmap comes on the heels of the Emirates Declaration, in which over 150 countries including Ireland committed at Cop28 to integrate food systems into their plans to cut emissions and adaptation strategies to prepare for the inevitable impacts from global warming.

“How to feed the planet by 2050 without destroying it in the process is one of the grand challenges of our time,” said Craig Hanson of the World Resources Institute.

“This roadmap is a welcome reminder that the answer involves sustainably boosting crop and livestock yields, reducing food loss and waste and shifting diets – all amidst a changing climate,” he added. “Now each country will need to forge a path toward a more sustainable food system. Rich countries will need to nudge people toward less meat-centric diets, and advance technologies and practices to drive down agricultural emissions.”

Low-income countries will need to sustainably boost crop and livestock productivity, even in a changing climate, he added. Smallholder farmers will need far more assistance to adapt to extreme weather, such as droughts and floods, which means wealthy governments needed to step up. “And all these changes will need to happen without further sacrificing forests for agriculture,” he added.

“Despite many caveats and conditions imposed on bioenergy use in this roadmap, dedicating land to bioenergy is inherently inefficient and inevitably undermines the world’s goals of meeting rising food demands and preserving native ecosystems and their carbon, Mr Hanson said.

Sophia Murphy of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy said: “FAO’s roadmap offers a welcome focus on the right to food in the cacophony of food interests that have descended on COP. The report mentions a host of critical issues, including farm income, farmworker rights and women’s empowerment. Disappointingly, the report neglects to call on big agricultural companies to make real emissions reductions, especially in rich countries where cutting methane and nitrous oxide emissions from industrial animal operations is a low-hanging fruit.”

During Cop28, The Guardian revealed the world’s top five meat companies’ emissions are estimated to be significantly larger than those of the oil firms Shell and BP, while the dairy industry’s 3.4 per cent contribution to global human-induced emissions is a higher share than aviation.

Minister for Agriculture and Food Charlie McConalogue said Ireland was a world leader in sustainable food systems and wanted to continue to be as productive as it has been on beef, dairy products and lamb.

Speaking it Dubai, he said this had to be in the context of agriculture becoming climate neutral “in the fastest possible time frame”, while helping to keep global warming to within 1.5 degrees. But this had to be “alongside keeping to produce the food because we are going to need more of that in the time ahead. What we produce in Ireland is part of a sustainable balanced diet for populations around the world.”

Irish agriculture had reason be very confident in relation to how it goes forward, he said, while meeting the challenges of reducing emissions and working collaboratively with others – as was happening at Cop28.

The FAO roadmap doesn’t name the real issues at stake and “dances around the elephant in the room”, pointing the finger anywhere but the actual culprits in the food sector, ActionAid.

ActionAid Ireland CEO, Karol Balfe, said in failing to name chemical fertilisers, factory farming or industrialised agriculture as the major sources of emissions and deforestation, its recommendations boil down to protecting the status quo.

“One quarter of the world’s people base their livelihoods on agriculture. The roadmap struggles with the tension between the need to protect the livelihoods of billions of farmers, and the compulsion to cheerlead the agribusiness technologies that displace labour, livelihoods and local knowledge,” she said.

She added: “The lack of joined-up-thinking is illustrated by a naive endorsement of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) to drive down global temperatures. BECCS is more likely to drive land grabs and deforestation, harming farmers and creating conflicts over land and food.”

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Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times