Food for Thought at COP24

We joked at the irony of it — a conference on climate change where so much of the food offered was meat-heavy. (Other ironies abounded; the least of which, the carbon footprint of all those attendees, ourselves included, flying to Katowice). If we were to view ourselves as standard tourists to Poland, this would not have come as much of a surprise. The typical diet, from first breakfast to supper, includes meat as a mainstay. Search “traditional Polish food” on Google and the following immediately pops up:

  • Pierogi: a type of dumpling most often filled with meat
  • Bigos: a meat stew
  • Zurek: a soup with chunks of kielbasa
  • Cabbage roll: typically stuffed with ground beef or pork

Yet, we were not standard tourists. We, like the tens of thousands of other visitors to Katowice, were there as climate-change advocates. It seems that it should have only been logical to use the COP24 platform to promote a climate-positive diet.

In October 2018 The Guardian reported that “huge reductions in meat-eating are essential to avoid dangerous climate change.” This recommendation comes directly from the latest IPCC Global Warming Special Report warning us that we have just 12 years to limit devastating climate change.

Why were we not heeding our own advice? At a meeting on the scale of COP, pushing more plant-based meal options should have been low-hanging fruit.

Later this month the EAT-Lancet Commission’s report on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food systems will launch. A sister paper has already been published in the scientific journal Nature. Among other hard hitting figures, the paper reports that “GHG emissions cannot be sufficiently mitigated without dietary changes towards more plant-based diets” as “the production of animal products generates the majority of food-related GHG emissions (72-78% of total agricultural emissions).”

Attending a side event hosted by the EAT-Lancet Commission on food-systems made COP24’s missed opportunity even clearer.

Gunhild Stordalen, the Founder and President of EAT, called food “the villain, victim, and possible hero of the drama [climate change] we are currently living in.” Food’s “villainous” role has been clearly highlighted above (i.e., responsibility for GHG emissions). Food supply lays victim to changing weather patterns and variable water supplies. Yet, food also has the “superpower” of being a connector of people, sectors, communities, countries. Seemingly disparate systems, separated by time and space, are brought together by food. Stordalen therefore posed the question: how can we get more people engaged in and passionate about food system issues? “How can we get people hungry for climate action everytime they sit down to eat?”

She, and other session panelists, emphasized that we can sustainably keep the food system within planetary boundaries. However, on our currently trajectory we are set to exceed multiple environmental limits. The type of change we need requires a combination of measures: dietary changes, reductions in food waste, and improvements in technology and management practices. Such measures necessitate action across the entire food chain.

As we see time and time again with any climate-related issue, the science is clear. But the message is not clearly received. I surreptitiously watched a woman type out a tweet:

The subject of the tweet exemplifies the many who receive, but fail to be receptive to, the idea of plant-based diets. The organizers of COP24 should have been more actively working to cultivate the opposite sentiment given that diet has a central role to play in the future of our planet. This could have been as simple as making prominent food offerings vegetarian or vegan. The audience at COP24 was largely captive; the type of media and education campaigns needed to promote dietary change could easily have been tested.

We know global change is needed. And COP24 offered a global platform. A global platform of high-ranking and influential decision makers. But unfortunately the topic was pushed far to the side of the plate.

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