Last year’s UN climate summit in Dubai (COP28) was a real landmark moment for sustainable food. Agriculture and food systems took center stage, with 159 world leaders endorsing the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action. For the first time, countries pledged to put agriculture at the heart of national climate and other policies while increasing investment in fair and sustainable food systems, with a commitment to show real progress by COP30 in 2025. 

Their pledges came not a moment too soon. Besides conflict, climate change and nature loss are the key drivers of escalating food security crises. Agriculture and food systems produce a third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and are the main cause of biodiversity loss and freshwater pollution — which in turn undermine food security and livelihoods, causing humanitarian crises, resource competition, migration and conflict.  

These risks will only intensify as demand for food is set to increase more than 50% by 2050 (nearly 70% for resource-intensive foods like meat and dairy), whilst climate impacts lead to crop losses and an increased risk of disasters. Moreover, these impacts are non-linear and unpredictable: For instance, if the world reaches tipping points in the Amazon or Congo Basin, forests could turn to savannah, with untold disruption to the water cycle and food systems across continents.  

But with any major multilateral commitment comes a key question: Will countries actually turn their resolutions into reality?

Oil palm plantation
Industrial-scale agriculture, such as the oil palm plantation shown here, often comes at the expense of primary forests and other ecosystems. Photo by Rich Carey/Shutterstock

4 Ways to Fulfill the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Food and Agriculture

The Emirates Declaration sets a two-year timeframe to demonstrate progress, with countries committing to a ministerial meeting at COP29 in Baku, Azerbaijan, and then to a full progress report at COP30 in Belem, Brazil. Since the aspirations of the declaration are both broad and ambitious, there are many ways countries can make headway. But we believe four elements will be central: namely, innovation, investment, changing consumption patterns and policy action.  

Policy action is the most critical — though most challenging — part to deliver.  

1) Innovation

There is clear evidence that new scientific developments and technologies are needed to increase agricultural productivity, enhance resilience and adapt to a changing climate, even as the world reduces its emissions and other environmental harms. However, this is not solely about agri-tech or new seed varieties, important though they are. It is also about innovation in service delivery, in the means of providing support for farmers and other actors in the food system, and in the broader governance of natural resources and distribution of benefits.  

There is also an element of “back to the future” here — for instance, maintaining or increasing agricultural yields while at the same time moving away from chemical-intensive mono-cropping of lower nutrition crops such as maize or cassava, and back towards diversified production of locally adapted, resilient and nutritious foods (such as teff, sorghum, millet, sweet potato and groundnut in several African countries). Greater adoption of more regenerative farming practices (such as reduced tillage, use of cover crops and mixed farming, to mention a few) also has an important role to play, especially to safeguard soil and water. The commitments made by companies at COP28 to shift to and support these practices will be important to uphold.

The Emirates Declaration, adopted by 159 national leaders in November 2023, recognizes the interdependence of climate, nature, food and agricultural systems. Signatories commit to solutions that will equitably feed a growing global population while safeguarding nature and curbing climate change. More specifically, countries committed to: 

-Integrate agriculture and food into national climate action and other relevant policies and plans;

-Take policy actions to promote sustainable agriculture; 

-Scale up finance and/or access to finance for sustainable food systems;

-Accelerate science and evidence-based solutions; and 

-Strengthen open, fair and inclusive trade systems.

2) Scaling investment 

Climate and development discussions often focus on finance and the need for more of it. Clearly, this must be part of the picture.  

The costs of a low-carbon transition are enormous when looked at in isolation. The Food and Land Use Coalition’s (FOLU) Growing Better report modeled the cost of shifting to sustainable food systems at around $300-$350 billion a year. This is a huge sum. Nonetheless, it is only a fraction of the hidden negative costs of current food systems (especially costs to health and the environment). The Food Systems Economics Commission Global Policy report released in 2024 estimates these costs at an annual $15 trillion — more than the total economic value created in food systems.  

By contrast, sustainable food systems could deliver potential economic benefits of more than $5 trillion per year, according to the modeling. FOLU’s latest report, Future Fit for Food and Agriculture, shows how investments of $205 billion per year between 2025-2030, or less than 2% of food sector revenues, could mitigate nearly half of global food system emissions and unlock many other benefits. 

Despite the potential benefits of these investments, current allocations of overseas development assistance (ODA) and international climate finance to agriculture and food systems are paltry compared to the scale of the challenge. Only 4.3% of climate finance goes to agriculture and food systems, and only 0.3% to smallholder farmers. Much more finance is needed to enable the adaptation, resilience and mitigation solutions that agriculture and food systems can help provide.  

However, the needed global transition to sustainable food systems cannot — and should not — be financed only by banging on the door of ODA. Even if far more ODA finance were raised to support this ambition, progress will be hard or impossible if the majority of non-ODA finance is going in the wrong direction. On public finance alone, subsidies for fossil fuel, agriculture and fisheries currently exceed $7 trillion per year. They’re often inefficient and set perverse incentives that drive harmful outcomes for climate and nature, undermining long-term health and livelihoods.  

There is an urgent need to redirect mainstream public and private investment in agriculture and food systems towards more sustainable approaches. That is where policy change comes in.  

Cowboys transport cattle in Corumba, Mato Grosso Do Sul, Brazil.
Cowboys transport cattle in Corumba, Mato Grosso Do Sul, Brazil. Producing beef uses 20 times as much land and produces 20 times the greenhouse gas emissions as producing a similar amount of plant-based proteins. Photo by reisegraf/iStock

3) Behavior change — including shifting diets and reducing food loss and waste 

It is increasingly clear that food systems cannot be “fixed” by interventions only on the production side. Production choices are often driven by unsustainable consumption patterns.  

For example, growing demand for meat — especially beef in developed and middle-income countries — bears the heaviest environmental toll on land use, including deforestation and other costs. Beef production requires 20 times more land and generates 20 times the amount of emissions per gram of protein compared to most plant-based proteins.  

Meanwhile, cheap pricing of low nutrition, highly processed foods in high-income countries’ supermarkets not only negatively impacts human health, but also distorts value chains to prioritize production of these kinds of foods. This arrangement provides little benefit to producers and no economic incentive to produce foods more sustainably. 

And finally, much of the food we’re currently producing is ultimately lost or wasted. About 24% of the world’s produced food calories go uneaten, causing more than $1 trillion in economic losses annually and producing 8-10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting food loss by half could reduce global food demand by a full 15% while reducing pressures on land.  

Changing consumption patterns is clearly a part of the puzzle, but again this leads back to policy.  

4) Policy action and a systems approach 

Public policies set incentives for producers, traders, investors and other actors in the food system. They affect people’s choices of what, how and where to produce, buy and process food, as well as which foods to eat. The situation varies greatly from country to country, but globally our current policies and incentives pertaining to agriculture, land use and food systems are often (inadvertently) driving climate and environmental harms.  

In agriculture alone, governments spend more than $700 billion annually in public support to their agriculture sectors. Much of this expenditure is inefficient. It sets up perverse incentives that drive harmful practices such as land use conversion, overuse of chemicals and soil degradation whilst failing to reward positive practices like maintaining soil health and water quality — both of which are key to agricultural productivity. According to World Bank/IFPRI research, farmers benefit from an average return of only $0.35 for every $1 spent on public support to agriculture. In addition, policies that encourage use of food crops for biofuels divert valuable cropland away from food production, with negative impacts on food security and the climate. 

Alternatively, emerging science, analysis and experience shows that triple wins and a sustainable development path are possible. Research such as FOLU’s Growing Better report, WRI’s Creating a Sustainable Food Future report and the World Bank’s forthcoming report Recipe for a Livable Planet: Achieving Net-Zero Emissions in the Agrifood System all lay out roadmaps for how the world can feed a growing population while safeguarding nature and holding global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F). All note that policy changes to shift both public as well as private investment are essential. 

Despite the scientific evidence, agriculture policy reform is notoriously controversial. The so-called “greenlash” in Europe is only one recent example. Reforms need to be done in true consultation with farming communities and in a just and inclusive way. The sustainable food transition must also be a “just rural transition,” with farmers’ livelihoods, interests and perspectives placed at the heart of it. 

The Emirates Declaration provides a strong rallying cry. It calls for policy action; for integrating agriculture and food systems in climate action plans such as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) and National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs); and for reorienting other public policies and support toward sustainable agriculture and food systems. This needs to go beyond agricultural policy per se, to food, health, energy, economic and financial policy and planning as well. 

Fishermen assess catches in Vietnam
A fishing village in Mui ne Vietnam. Shifting the world’s food systems toward sustainability must be done in a way that supports smallholder farmers and fishers. Photo by Eonaya/iStock

The Road Ahead for Sustainable Food Systems 

COP28 and the Emirates Declaration set a political watermark on this crucial agenda. The urgent need now is to maintain and build on this momentum, including at the Spring Meetings of the World Bank and IMF and Brazil’s G20 meeting, which has placed a welcome focus on hunger and poverty. Besides the Emirates Declaration, a range of other actors and initiatives are and need to be part of this effort — such as the COP28 Non State Actors Call to Action, the FAO Roadmap, the Alliance of Champions for Food Systems Transformation initiative, and further public, philanthropic and private sector pledges to innovate and scale science- and evidence-based solutions.  

There are additional risks to be aware of and resolve: the proliferation of competing approaches and initiatives presents a serious threat of overlap and contradiction that could undermine progress. An over-emphasis on technical fixes alone could also fall short of addressing inequalities and the incentives driving practices that harm the climate and nature.  

The most significant shift in finance for sustainable agriculture and food systems must come from the private sector. Much of this will be guided by shifts in policy, regulation and market demand. Transformation will not occur without a shift in market signals and systems. As corporates step up to make greater commitments to food systems transformation, there could be an increased risk of greenwashing, with vested interests seeking to look good while side-stepping the need to rethink the way we value natural ecosystems and manage climate impacts in our economic systems.

Ultimately, each country will need to take the approach most relevant to its own national and regional context. This will differ significantly around the world — for example, from a focus on boosting agricultural efficiency, soil health and water conservation in sub-Saharan Africa, to a concerted effort to reducing agricultural emissions in middle-income countries, to exploring alternative proteins and dietary shifts in high-income countries.

The common thread, however, should be justice.

All countries should seek changes that secure low-emissions, climate-resilient agriculture and food systems that deliver healthy diets, nature protection, and sustainable livelihoods to all. Bold political leadership will be vital, as well as a steady drumbeat of national and global action that really drives progress on the unprecedented commitments made last year.

Dr. Rachel Waterhouse is the Sustainable Water & Food Systems Lead at the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.