Food is an enormously important issue when it comes to climate change. Unfortunately, international climate change conferences have historically failed to make direct links between agriculture and climate change—especially regarding the production of farmed animals.
The United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the first international agreement recognizing the global concern of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) production, was crafted in 1992 and entered into force in 1994 with near-universal membership among the nations of the world. Countries ratifying the treaty become “parties” to its processes, which include ongoing negotiations and a yearly international climate change conference hosted by a signatory nation. The Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement have been milestones within this ongoing global treaty process. However, despite the importance of food and agriculture—particularly animal agriculture—to global GHG production, it was only during the 27th annual Conference of the Parties (COP27), held in Egypt in November 2022, that food finally became part of the official agenda.
The groundwork for making COP27 in November 2022 “the food systems COP” was laid by the inaugural UN Food Systems Summit, convened by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in New York in September 2021. According to climate scientists, effectively addressing climate change requires a significant reduction of livestock[i]and a global shift toward plant-based diets, particularly in high-income nations of the Global North.
Reducing farmed-animal production and consumption would be the most effective way to cut agricultural emissions of the extremely potent short-term greenhouse gas methane, 32% of which comes from farmed-animal manure and enteric fermentation. Reducing animal production also has the potential to free up the 75% of agricultural land currently used to produce animals and their feed crops, potentially allowing that land to be repurposed for nature restoration to draw down additional carbon from the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, negotiations at COP27 failed to deliver any firm global commitments to reduced production and consumption of farmed animals. Of course, COP27 does not represent the only forum nor the final word related to international meat reduction efforts. Opportunities lie ahead for building on the groundwork laid both inside and outside of international climate negotiations, as well as forging stronger connections between activists and campaigners focused on meat reduction and those working on other climate issues. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the deeper factors that shaped negotiations at the most recent COP. Will the commitments and initiatives that did emerge linking farmed animals and the climate be enough to spur necessary food system transformation?
Achieving Visibility at COP27
The road toward recognition of food production as a key part of the climate change adaptation and mitigation agenda has been a long time in the making. Negotiating the particulars of a “just transition” from animal to plant-based agriculture was included among proposals that 2021 Food Systems Summit stakeholders could take forward together. Civil society groups, particularly those representing young people, have also been advocating for meat reduction for many years, explains Lana Weidgenant, a climate justice activist and Campaigns and Policy Manager for ProVeg International. “The official representation for children and the youth in UN Climate Change—known as YOUNGO—has consistently taken the stance that livestock and meat reduction is a necessity and voiced this in the agriculture negotiations on a number of occasions,” she says. “There was also an increase in the number and variety of civil society voices standing for the reduction of meat and animal agriculture in COP27 as compared to past COPs.”
In 2022, for the first time in the annual climate gathering’s twenty-seven-year history, the COP featured pavilions dedicated entirely to food and agriculture. Pavilions are spaces separate from the negotiation halls where each Party (nation) or Observer organization (e.g., the UN, NGOs, and intergovernmental organizations) can host events and showcase research and expertise. These spaces are open to everyone attending the COP and are intended to provide public transparency to the negotiations. One COP negotiation day was also dedicated to agriculture for the first time. Outside the official negotiations, many side events also centered on discussion of food and agriculture. Though side events and pavilions are informal discussions, they are “critical to embedding food systems thinking into mainstream climate action,” as written by Theresa Lieb, food systems analyst at Greenbiz.
Despite this progress in putting food and climate at the center of the climate agenda, other aspects of the summit sent a message that conflicted with the urgent need to scale back farmed animal production for meat and dairy. Firstly, the catering for COP27 was not only notably woefully insufficient but also inexplicably failed to reflect the initiatives articulated at 2021’s COP26 in Glasgow. There, the catering had aimed to be “plant-forward” with 40% of the food sold being plant-based and carbon labeling included on menus. Of those efforts at COP26, the Stockholm Environment Institute said, “If policymakers are serious about addressing the climate crisis, this approach needs to mark a starting shot for a much broader and sustained transition to put global dietary trends on a more plant-based trajectory.” Instead, attendees at COP27 reportedly struggled to find vegetarian or vegan food options, while VIP delegates dined on $100 cuts of beef, the most GHG-emissions-intensive food on the planet. This conflict between what delegates ate and the dietary norms that climate mitigation demands Vegan Society, “a missed opportunity for world leaders to … lead by example in showcasing a delicious, low impact, plant-based menu to highlight how such changes can make a huge difference to the future of the planet.”
Event catering was not the only place where the interests of meat and dairy producers held inappropriate weight. 160 official negotiation delegates had direct ties to agribusiness companies, up from 76 at COP26. At least 35 of these agribusiness delegates were linked to major meat and dairy companies and lobby groups, even outnumbering the national delegations of the highly climate-vulnerable nations Haiti and the Philippines. Several of those 35 were officially listed as government representatives. As national delegates these industry insiders would have had the ability to influence official climate negotiations. “Such a big presence increases the chances of climate targets being watered down and drowns out the voices of others involved in agriculture, such as farmers, campaigners, and smallholders’ organizations,” Veronica Oakeshott, head of the Forests Team at Global Witness, told DeSmog.
Indeed, several of these major meat and dairy companies have previously lobbied directly against climate policies, helping the oil and gas industries to derail US climate action. Meat and dairy lobbyists have borrowed from the opposition playbook of the oil and gas industry and have spent millions to limit climate change agreements. There is now doubt over whether a number of the measures to reduce agricultural emissions that were formally announced at COP27 can provide the benefits they proclaim.
Commitments Made at COP27
The 2022 climate gathering yielded several emerging themes, processes, and agreements that will influence global progress toward meat reduction and food systems transformation.
New “pathways” for the Global Methane Pledge
The Pledge, which aims to limit methane emissions by 30% compared with 2020 levels, was announced at COP26 with 100 signatory nations. By COP27, it had gained an additional 50 signatories and two new “pathways” of policies and initiatives to drive methane reductions, in addition to the Energy Pathway launched in June 2022. The new pathways are on Waste and on Food and Agriculture. The latter may have come as welcome news to those concerned that the original Pledge contained no specific commitments related to farming. The main initiatives announced so far are funding for smallholder farmers in the Global South to transition to low-emissions dairy systems, investing in methane-reducing measures such as limiting food waste and building more anaerobic biodigesters[ii] for animal manure, and financing innovation in reducing methane produced by animals.
Again, a meaningful commitment to reduce livestock numbers is notably absent, even though livestock accounts for one-third of global methane emissions. Even if methane from enteric fermentation and manure can be effectively reduced by technological innovation, other climate impacts from cattle farming would remain, along with myriad other environmental harms. There is also a carbon opportunity cost from devoting land to cattle grazing or feed crops instead of using that land for biodiversity conservation, which would draw down more carbon.
Policy support for Climate-smart agriculture
Among the solutions narratives discussed at COP27 is “climate-smart agriculture,” a framing that has some food and climate campaigners concerned. It is a key tenet of US President Joe Biden’s COP27 announcement of new initiatives to build on commitments already made at the previous COP. These include the establishment of an international climate-smart agriculture hub, which is intended to “support global science-based, climate-informed decision-making” on the future pf agriculture and contribute to the goals of the Global Methane Pledge, hailed as one of the successes of COP26. Climate-smart agriculture is also a central part of the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate initiative (Aim4C), jointly led by the US and the United Arab Emirates, also launched at COP26. According to GRAIN, an NGO that supports small farmers, the problem with climate-smart agriculture is that it “encompasses any practice that can claim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and it deliberately avoids consideration of the larger consequences of industrial agriculture.”
Neither Aim4C nor anything in the US COP27 announcement suggests curbing intensive animal farming. Instead, the focus is on new technologies and technological changes to existing livestock farms, including cattle feed additives, gene-editing to lower methane emissions from ruminant animals, and managing animal manure. As a result, climate-smart agriculture became “a key greenwashing issue in the COP27 negotiations,” says Weidgenant.
Agricultural Sector Roadmap to 1.5°C
The roadmap is a plan agreed upon by fourteen transnational agribusiness firms to remove deforestation from their supply chains, thereby reducing emissions from land use changes caused by cattle ranching and palm oil and soy plantations. While the World Economic Forum (WEF) has praised the roadmap, there has also been significant criticism of its inadequacies, particularly related to soy production, 76% of which is grown to feed livestock. Committing to no deforestation still leaves non-forest ecosystems vulnerable to land conversion, such as in the Cerrado, which has suffered significant fragmentation and degradation due to soy cultivation. This, says WEF, “makes staying on a 1.5°C trajectory near impossible.”
There is also skepticism among environmental campaigners that the companies involved can be trusted to meet the targets they set. Investigation by Greenpeace Unearthed, Repórter Brasil, and Greenpeace Brazil has documented continuing sourcing of cattle from illegally deforested Amazon land after publicized anti-deforestation commitments, showing failures of due diligence in sourcing.
Additionally, the roadmap seeks to “encourage a sustainable intensification” among livestock producers. This indicates that the roadmap signatories have no goals around reducing livestock numbers. Indeed, meat industry associations reportedly lobbied for the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021 to promote intensive animal farming and global meat consumption.
(Another) Roadmap for agri-food systems
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) committed to creating a roadmap for aligning the global food system with a climate warming limit of 1.5°C, to be unveiled at COP28 in 2023, following a campaign by a coalition of investors with $18 trillion in combined assets led by the FAIRR Initiative. The roadmap promises “a cost-effective pathway to transition the world’s food system to one that provides affordable, nutritious and plentiful food while protecting livelihoods in the face of climate change, and aligning with 1.5C.” This resource will be helpful for investors seeking to mitigate investment risk and align their portfolios with food system sustainability.
The roadmap may include milestones such as the redirection of subsidies away from environmentally harmful activities, including industrial animal agriculture and fishing, something the UN has called on governments to do. Governments direct hundreds of billions of subsidy dollars to agricultural activities that undermine their ability to ensure a sustainable food supply.
Renewing the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture
The Koronivia Joint Work for Agriculture (KJWA) is a program launched at COP23 in 2017 that “recognizes the unique potential of agriculture in tackling climate change.” KJWA was originally intended to wrap up at COP26, but a final decision about how to continue KJWA’s climate and agriculture work was postponed until COP27 when countries agreed to renew the program for another four years. Negotiations around Koronivia helped to keep agriculture and food security central to the COP27 agenda, recognizing the climate vulnerability of livestock farming and the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the sector. However, Koronivia discussions did not broach the subject of livestock reduction, according to observers. The final text on the future of the program, while falling short of taking a food systems approach or addressing the climate impact of industrial agriculture, highlighted the importance of smallholder farms, food security, and equity.
Carrying Momentum Forward to COP28
“COP27 has shown that the UN Climate Change conference is not scared to talk about food and agriculture as one of their large agenda items,” says Weidgenant. “They’re just scared to talk about any amount of reduction in livestock and in meat.” She warns that though side events at COP27 were an important place for civil society to hold events and discussions on “just livestock reduction, transition to plant-rich diets, and potential alternative protein solutions,” there is “a significant amount of hesitancy to overcome” to get these conversations into official negotiations.
Action to scale back livestock farming could, in theory, come from other international negotiations, such as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) text that was finalized at the COP15 Biodiversity Summit in Montreal in December 2022. Almost 200 countries agreed to, by 2025, identify and then “eliminate, phase out or reform incentives, including subsidies” that are harmful to biodiversity, reducing by at least $500 billion a year. However, $500 billion is a fraction of the $1.8 trillion being spent annually worldwide on industries harmful to nature, and specific mention of “fisheries and agricultural subsidies” in an earlier draft of the agreement did not make it into the final text.
The Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture offers another possible avenue for progress at COP28 and beyond as the only formal process within COP negotiations to focus on mitigation and adaptation to climate change in agriculture. Morgan Gillespy, executive director of the food and land use coalition program at the World Resources Institute, told Devex that the organizers of the COP27 Food Systems Pavilion would “continue to push for a more progressive outcome at next year’s Global Stocktake and COP28” potentially including the necessity of global dietary shifts.
A number of climate events throughout 2023 also offer opportunities to make progress on highlighting the impacts of industrial meat production, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals Summit and the Climate Ambition Summit, which the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said will accelerate climate action and leave “no room for back-sliders, greenwashers, blame-shifters or repackaging of announcements of previous years.”
An increasingly important step for ensuring real international action on food and climate is the need for more allyship between different groups within the climate-food advocacy community. One COP27 attendee described an “emerging polarization between technological solutions and food sovereignty,” with activists in the Global South wary that the pursuit of alternative proteins as a climate solution could come at the expense of a focus on their food sovereignty. Advocates for meat reduction can alleviate this tension by emphasizing the message that cutting Global North meat consumption is key for alleviating the meat industry’s harms to the Global South—which includes exacerbating global climate change and destroying ecosystems in lower-income Global South nations to produce farmed animals for consumption by wealthy nations of the Global North. This could enable social justice activists to become strong voices for meat reduction and undercut attempts by the industrial livestock industry to frame such action as a threat to food security.
Another important area where progress needs to be made is in strengthening collaboration between climate-food campaigners and energy campaigners. Some energy campaigners who have worked for years to get governments to take concrete action on energy emissions reduction and still have an uphill battle ahead of them have been resistant to the idea that food systems action is equally important for ensuring a stable climate. These campaigners worry that the rising visibility of food systems advocacy may distract governments from finally prioritizing a rapid phase-out of carbon-intensive energy sources. But with significant overlap between food production and high-carbon energy, including the production of fossil fuel-based synthetic pesticides and fertilizers used in the production of emissions-intensive feed crops for industrial farmed animals, campaigners from these two sectors have much to gain by working together toward the common goal of creating a sustainable future.
As COP28 approaches, some in the food and climate space are increasingly prioritizing local action on meat reduction to create momentum from the ground up. Writing in Counterpunch, Laura Lee Cascada from the Better Food Foundation, Anita Krajnc from Plant Based Treaty, and Nital Jethalal from Plant Based Data argue that “instead of waiting years for commitments to trickle down from above, municipal leaders around the world (and particularly those of C40’s [a global network of mayors taking climate action] nearly 100 major cities, constituting a quarter of the global economy) must seize a rapidly shrinking opportunity to shape food culture from the ground up by prioritizing plant-based foods.”
[i] Within international climate negotiations, farmed animals are referred to as livestock. We use this term here to accurately depict topics from international climate change discourse. Otherwise, Stray Dog Institute avoids using the term “livestock” because it implies that farmed animals are property.
[ii] In small-scale settings, anaerobic digestion of agricultural and farmed animal waste can provide nutrient cycling and waste reduction benefits for agrarian communities. However, large-scale industrial digesters used by intensive dairy operations and other confined animal production facilities for farmed animal waste management further entrench and greenwash industrial animal agriculture and the fossil fuel energy system.
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change and Land: IPCC Special Report on Climate Change, Desertification, Land Degradation, Sustainable Land Management, Food Security, and Greenhouse Gas Fluxes in Terrestrial Ecosystems, 1st ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2022), https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009157988
 United Nations Environment Programme and Climate & Clean Air Coalition, “Global Methane Assessment: Benefits and Costs of Mitigating Methane Emissions” (Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Environment Programme, May 6, 2021), https://www.unep.org/resources/report/global-methane-assessment-benefits-and-costs-mitigating-methane-emissions.
 Oliver Lazarus, Sonali McDermid, and Jennifer Jacquet, “The Climate Responsibilities of Industrial Meat and Dairy Producers,” Climatic Change 165, no. 1 (March 25, 2021): 30, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-021-03047-7.