Reflections on COP 25: Food Systems

As a first time observer of the Annual Conference of Parties, I was completely enamored as soon as I walked in the convention center, and am honestly still reeling about the experience. If you have not yet had the pleasure of attending, it is a conference unlike any other. One convention center packed to the brim with brillant, passionate individuals from all over the world actively trying to fight climate change. People walk briskly, rushing by to go negotiate for their country, give a presentation on the emissions gap, or discussing the intricacies of carbon pricing. The energy and potential in the convention center are palpable, and even as an observer I found myself walking briskly from place to place too, determination in my steps. The opportunities to learn are endless, and I was hellbent on taking in as much information as possible.

Like many environmentalists, I’m passionate about a myriad of sustainability issues, but have one “issue” that I care about more than the rest. For me, that issue is food waste prevention. The more I have learned about food waste, the more passionate I become. Did you know if food waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of GHGs behind China and the United States? Did you know that we waste about 40% of all the food that is grown and produced? Food waste is a fascinating challenge; an easy moral argument not to waste food, yet so much food waste happens along the supply chain due to poor management, cosmetic standards, and consumer behavior. Yet, proportionally while we waste almost 1.3 billion tonnes globally, over 820 million people face food insecurity; a condition where you don’t know where your next meal or calorie will come from. This appalling dichotomy is a crystal clear indication that our current global food system is broken, and obviously not providing calories where they are most needed and curbing waste where it happens.

I was eager to learn what the international community had to say about food systems and food waste at COP 25. While food waste was only briefly touched upon in some events, sustainable food systems as a broad topic got a fair amount of attention. One of the best events I attended on the subject was titled “Innovations in Food Systems”, and had over 7 panelists from various parts of the food supply chain speaking about their work. One of the most shocking takeaways of this event is that food is not included in any of the countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). NDCs are a product of the Paris Accord, a clever arrangement to overcome disagreement by the United States, lobbied for by President Obama. Each country determines their own emissions reduction and adaptation plan, instead of it being mandated top-down. Food systems will be impacted with climate change and have a large potential in mitigation of GHGs as well, so it was jarring to learn that currently no county in the world is considering this in their NDC.

The executive director from the Crop Trust also spoke about the continued loss of biodiversity that will accelerate as the climate crisis progresses. Loss of biodiversity is something I had heard many times, but had never truly connected to the food system until she gave an example about bermuda beans. These beans have extremely strong and dense root networks that prevent them from being washed out in flooding events. By the time researchers found this species, there were only 28 individual plants left on the island. Breeding this plant with other bean varieties can make our crops much more resilient to the flooding events that will increase in the coming years. She stressed that as we lose biodiversity we lose options for the future. If the bermuda bean had gone extinct, we would have lost this vital adaptation trait. This is a startling realization, as we have lost over 90% biodiversity in fruits and vegetables in the United States alone.

A representative from IKEA also spoke about scaling up sustainable contributions, and the powerful role food businesses can play in advancing sustainable consumption. IKEA recently rolled out “veggie balls” as an alternative to their famous meatballs. An individual could eat 20 of these veggie replacements and have the same environmental impact as just eating 1 regular meatball. A beyond burger uses 95% less land to produce than a traditional burger and 1/9 the amount of water. A beyond burger representative spoke of their recent expansion to the Burger King fast food chain. They argued that consumers were curious, willing, and oftentimes asking for these environmentally friendly alternatives and it was the responsibility of food serving institutions to provide these options. All panelists also urged those attending to use our collective voices to demand healthy, sustainable options wherever we eat.

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