Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
Farming and crops ;

COP26: lessons learned from the UN Food Systems Summit

Forward Thinking series
Ruth Luckins

Department of Geography

28 October 2021

The UN Food Systems Summit, which recently took place in New York alongside Climate Week and the UN General Assembly, called specific focus to the role of the global food system in exacerbating climate change, but also in contributing to other global social issues including poverty, hunger and health. Ruth Luckins, a student in the Department of Geography, explores the lessons climate actors can learn from the summit’s approach to global thinking, adaptation and resilience, and effective collaboration on climate.

The Food Systems Summit was unique in many ways. Firstly, the very concept of examining and addressing the entire food system from demand to agriculture, transport and consumption on a global scale, was unprecedented. And secondly, the structure of the summit itself was revolutionary, in that not only were global leaders invited to speak, but in the eighteen months prior to the event over 1600 open dialogues on food system transformation took place, including over 100,000 people in over 147 countries . The dialogues engaged in topics as wide ranging as resiliency, nutrition and youth engagement, and included multi-stakeholder participants from every aspect of the food system, including food distributors, processors, local governments and health and nutrition professionals. Now, Dr Agnes Kalibata and other conference leaders are calling for the issues they raised, and proposals they made, to be included in the COP26 discussions in November.

There are several ways that including food systems on the COP26 agenda would be beneficial.

Systems thinking

Firstly, it would begin to embed the mentality of full systems thinking into the COP agenda. Although academic and public discourse is moving increasingly towards acknowledgement of the importance of a systems approach (understanding how one issue or decision can affect countless others, and the importance of inter-disciplinary collaboration), our international goals and rhetoric still inevitably lean towards silo-ed thinking in order to better articulate the specific goals and targets that are needed for clear policy. Including the concept of a whole system in the agenda is an approach that would help to solidify that important mindset of linked and complimentary goals into the COP process, and is something that COP26 will be scrutinised over by academics and other actors.

Food, COP26, resilience and the SDGs

Secondly, the food system is so wide ranging that it affects almost all of the specified COP26 Goals. The food system from, production through to consumption, accounts for 34% of all anthopogenic greenhouse gas emissions worldwide (COP26 Goal 1), and is the primary driver of loss of both ecosystem resilience and biodiversity through land use change, driven by intensive farming practices worldwide (COP26 Goal 2). All these effects can be attributed to the destructive global cycle caused by the ‘cheaper food paradigm’: demand for low cost food leads to increased intensive farming with reliance on more inputs from fertilizer, pesticides, land, energy and water; lower priced food then increases demand for food, which perpetuates the cycle. This also has impacts on many of the other climate systems that support the Holocene: for example intensive farming leads to increased nitrogen fixation and phosphorus run off, freshwater is running low largely because of its diversion and use for agriculture, and food transport and packaging practices are increasingly contributing to air pollution and waste issues.

Furthermore, a key issue highlighted by the food system transformation challenge is the need to acknowledge and integrate the social aspects of climate change issues into the wider COP26 discussions, especially in relation to the developing world. Moving the food system away from this destructive cheap food cycle will not only play a vital role in addressing many aspects of climate change, but also to achieving the wider UN agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, which include many interlinked issues such as Zero Hunger (SDG2), Good Health and Wellbeing (SDG3) and Responsible Production and Consumption (SDG12) to name but a few.

On top of all this, addressing the issues in the food system is crucial for building resilience (COP26 Goal 2). For example, the healthcare system in the US cannot improve its resilience to climate change threats by preparing for the forthcoming impacts of heat waves, pollution or new diseases if 21% of annual medical spending continues to be related to treating obesity related illnesses. Farmers in developing countries cannot be focused on restoring the biodiversity and improving farming practices on their land, which will protect soils and ecosytems, whilst they are still unable to earn enough to live and send their children to school. And communities will struggle to become more locally focused for their food supply while international food trade continues to be encouraged for development and global population increases are projected to place extra pressure on food supply in the next few years.

Collaboration and co-operation

It is undoubtedly an incredibly complex multi-faceted issue, and addressing every one of these diverse challenges is well beyond the scope of COP26 itself, which focuses on the climate related aspects to it. But there is one more crucial lesson to be learnt from the UN Food Summit, and that is the importance of collaboration across not just large political, private and third sector organisations (which is already part of COP26 Goal 4), but between actors of every level and background. Through the extensive multi-level dialogue process that was carried out, a huge repository of information, skills, contacts and ideas has been created, which is easily accessible online to everyone across the globe. It’s an ideal model for COP26 to follow; an accessible meeting point of high-level policy creation and the Internet of Things, where ownership and agency is possible not just from the top down but also from the bottom up.

The impacts of the food industry on climate change are enough to warrant inclusion in COP26 alone, and indeed agriculture, biodiversity loss and carbon emissions from food are accepted issues that will be discussed and addressed. However, the Food Summit has set an example worth following in the way they have framed the issue through a whole system lens, and in the level of commitment to real collaboration and dialogue across all sectors and levels of society. This approach, process, and the resources created are all things that actors in other areas of the UN can learn from.

Latest news