By Lisa Maria Klaus, TMG – Think Tank for Sustainability

At the UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 28) on 1 December, it was declared that 134 countries have signed the UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action, committing to integrate food into their climate plans by 2025. That is good news as food has largely been absent from previous COP gatherings.

While the Paris Agreement guides climate action, the transformation of food systems is not covered by a specific global regulatory framework that sets out clear rules and targets to achieve the SDGs related to food and agriculture, including ending hunger by 2030. In addition, declarations and frameworks alone do not bring about real change as the outcome of this year’s climate negotiations shows. Although numerous conferences highlight aspects of the transformation of our food systems, priorities and recommendations often lack specific steps for implementation.

At COP 28, two side events by TMG – Think Tank for Sustainability and WWF sought to fill this gap. Participants discussed the questions of who needs to transform what, at which level, and how to navigate effective governance for food systems transformation.

Alexander Müller, Managing Director of TMG – Think Tank for Sustainability, stressed the importance of a multilevel governance framework for food systems transformation. He called for a shift from declarations to concrete actions and presented the ‘Agri-Food Systems Transformation Protocol’ – a concise decision support tool for developing transformation pathways. The protocol was developed by TMG – Think Tank for Sustainability together with a group of scientists and published in their latest report. Müller further pointed out that the current global food system benefits specific stakeholders, citing the substantial gains made by food commodity traders in 2023 despite the multiple crises that we face. He called for a new governance system with inclusive decision-making mechanisms to achieve the transformation and for creating alliances with like-minded actors from different sectors to work towards this goal.

Alex Muller

Alexander Müller presenting his keynote at a side event by TMG – Think Tank for Sustainability and WWF at UNFCCC COP 28 with Rosinah Mbenya, Alessandro Cruvinel, and Marcella D’Szousa

During the first panel discussion in the IICA Pavilion on 5 December, speakers emphasized the need to translate global goals into local actions. Marcella D’Szousa, Director of the WOTR Centre for Resilience Studies in India, underscored the integrated nature of the food system, urging a holistic approach that considers diverse factors like land, soil, water, and culture. She highlighted the importance of focusing on outcomes and involving communities in governance at the local level.

Rosinah Mbenya, Country Coordinator of PELUM Kenya, emphasized the centrality of smallholder farmers in solving the problems of our food systems and advocated for stakeholder platforms and national agroecology policies.

Alessandro Cruvinel, Director of Innovation at the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, Brazil, highlighted Brazil’s efforts in implementing low-carbon agriculture plans over the past decade and stressed the importance of governance, technology, and innovation. Trade, agricultural subsidies, and land tenure were identified as critical aspects needing more attention.

Louise Baker, Managing Director of the Global Mechanism, UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), emphasized the importance of integrated land-use planning, addressing governance issues like land tenure, and rectifying financing signals that undermine sustainable practices. She advocated for collaboration at the landscape level involving various government departments and technology transfer.

In conclusion, Martina Fleckenstein, Global Policy Director, Food, WWF International, emphasized the need for institutional innovation and a multilevel governance system for food systems transformation. She called for the debate to continue at the COPs of the three Rio Conventions in 2024 and pointed to the launch of the Food System Nationally Determined Contributions (FS-NDC).

The second panel took place on 10 December in the WWF Pavilion. The discussions highlighted the complexities of governance and the diverse paths toward building inclusive and sustainable food systems.

Rafael Arantes, Extraordinary Secretariat for Combating Poverty and Hunger, Brazil, shared insights into CONSEA, Brazil’s national council on food security and nutrition. CONSEA, with representation from civil society organizations (CSOs) and grassroots movements, plays a crucial role in advising the government on food systems and food security policies, he said. Despite challenges, Rafael Arantes recommended replicating this model, citing its success in amplifying the voices of underrepresented groups.

Nicole Pita, International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), raised concerns about the influence of transnational corporations on global food system governance. She highlighted IPES-Food’s report on corporate interests in decision making, emphasizing the need to democratize decision-making spaces. Pita pointed to the Nyeleni international movement for food sovereignty as an example of an inclusive governance framework that deserves more recognition.

Wei Zhang, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), discussed successful governance mechanisms at the local level, drawing on the “living lab for people” approach, which is part of the CGIAR Research Initiative on Low-Emission Food Systems. It implies gender-transformative strategies and the co-production of knowledge to enhance governance effectiveness.

Manuel Jaramillo, Director General, Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina, referred to governance efforts in Argentina, giving the example of the roundtable for sustainable beef. He emphasized the importance of addressing power imbalances and transparency in stakeholder collaborations, suggesting that such roundtables are effective in preparing for future challenges.

When asked for recommendations for governments that have signed the UAE Declaration, Arantes stressed the importance of strengthening cooperation and collaboration, emphasizing the obligation of states to ensure the realization of the human right to food for all. Pita pointed out that signing international declarations is a positive step, but the focus should be on implementation, resource allocation, and empowering local communities.

Fleckenstein concluded the event by expressing hope for the integration of food systems into the Global Stocktake’s outcomes and a strong message on food system transformation in the COP’s final decision. As we know today, these expectations were not sufficiently fulfilled.

TMG – Think Tank for Sustainability will continue its work on the governance of food systems and launch another report in 2024, focusing on the linkages between sustainable production and consumption. Follow our work here.