There’s good news from COP28, the 2023 United Nations’ climate conference in Dubai that started yesterday and runs through Dec. 12. After years of virtually ignoring the role of food and agriculture in the climate crisis, this year’s event is finally bringing the issue out of the shadows.
In addition to including a food- and agriculture-themed day and a highly anticipated road map from the UN to align food systems with the Paris Agreement, the conference will finally serve mostly plant-based meals this year.
The menus offered at environmental conferences can serve as powerful examples of how we can turn words into actions. What’s on this conference’s menu can help set the stage for what’s on the conference’s agenda. And the impact of food purchasing itself is no small thing. COP28 will serve 250,000 meals daily to nearly 70,000 visitors from 200 countries. COP28 organizers must serve a majority of plant-based foods from its 80 food halls, grab-and-go stations, and food trucks if delegates are going to eat a diet that mitigates climate change.
If you follow the science, the necessity of serving mostly plant-based meals is crystal clear. Food production makes up one-third of global greenhouse emissions — with about half of those emissions coming from animal agriculture. If we have any hope of even approaching the targets and goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement, agricultural emissions must be cut immediately (in addition to ending our reliance on fossil fuels).
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends a shift to more plant-based diets as a key mitigation strategy. Getting there means menus at events and institutions must shift away from meals with high greenhouse gas counts.
Two years ago, the COP26 conference in Scotland hinted at changes but still featured beef, seafood, and haggis on menus throughout the event. Joseph Choi at The Hill likened a climate conference serving meals with large carbon footprints to a conference aimed at reducing lung cancer handing out cigarettes.
That's why the COP28 menu shift — dubbed the “1.5°C aligned menu” — is so important. We need to drive a shift in the types of food that institutions purchase and serve. If an event as massive as COP can shift toward plant-based menus, so can smaller conferences, venues, universities, and cities. In addition to focusing on plant-based foods, the sustainable catering at COP28 will also focus on inclusivity, waste reduction, emissions labeling, and carbon budgets.
COP28’s menus and food-focused agenda show that the tide is turning. But my colleagues and I will be keeping a close eye on how the conference presents these issues — including the push for so-called regenerative grazing, which is another false solution often co-opted by the biggest producers as a way to maintain largely business-as-usual practices. After all, environmental footprints of food production amount to more than carbon emissions, and that’s before we consider the significant harms the agriculture industry inflicts on biodiversity and wild habitats.
The menu shift at COP28 signals what menus at all events and conferences should be moving toward. I hope this is a model for future global conferences, including the United Nations’ next biodiversity conference.
How You Can Help
Even people in charge of food policy may not be aware of the impact event food purchasing has on curbing climate change and the loss of biodiversity. By advocating for climate-friendly menus and policies at work, at school, in your community, and at professional gatherings and conferences, you can encourage menu shifts like the ones seen at COP28 that will make a big impact. Where possible, aim to prioritize plant-based, plant-forward, or default-veg menus at your own meals and gatherings.