Back Forty: World Wildlife Fund’s Melissa D. Ho talks COP28 and food system reform

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Deforestation caused by palm oil plantations, like this one in Sumatra, Indonesia, and other agricultural operations is driving up greenhouse gas emissions. Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images.

By Bridget Huber

The next UN Climate Change Conference, COP28, opens on Thursday in Dubai. This year, food systems issues will play a more central role in the negotiations than ever before, with a day of the conference devoted to food, for the first time.

Food and agriculture account for roughly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Among the main sources are petroleum-based fertilizers, livestock and food waste, and the conversion of biomes like forest and grasslands to plant soy and other commodities. At the same time, food production is also imperiled by the mounting climate crisis; one analysis found that if total emissions stay high, a third of global food production will be at risk.

One of the main features of this year’s conference is a moment of reckoning called the Global Stocktake. Countries will assess how much progress they have (or, spoiler alert, haven’t) made toward their commitments from the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aimed to keep the increase in global average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). And they’ll make new agreements on how to step up the pace of change.

Around 100 countries are also expected to sign a declaration on “Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action.” According to an inadvertently released draft, the signatories will pledge to integrate food and agriculture into their strategies to mitigate climate change and protect biodiversity. They also will “revisit or orient policies and public support” for agriculture and food systems to promote emissions reductions, resilience, health, and livelihoods while reducing environmental harm.

To learn more about what to expect at this year’s conference, I spoke with Melissa D. Ho, senior vice president for freshwater and food at World Wildlife Fund-U.S. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is the heightened focus on food at this conference important, and is there a risk that it could distract from the most critical need — eliminating fossil fuels?

We need to phase out fossil fuels and we need to address food systems. It’s really not an either-or; to get to a 1.5 degree future, both are required. There will be no achieving our goals without addressing the emissions coming out of our food systems. Unlike fossil fuels, which we must eliminate to meet our climate goals, we cannot phase out feeding the planet. Food systems must be part of our future. And food systems are so impacted by the shifts in climate, but they can also be part of the solution. The food sector is really behind the energy sector in terms of addressing climate change, both in acknowledging its role in the crisis as well as in investment and innovation.

How can food be part of the solution?

We’ve looked at where and how we could drive gigaton-scale reductions in CO2 emissions globally, and 80 percent of those natural climate solutions are really tightly linked to food systems changes. Those changes fall into three broad buckets. We have to protect the environment. We have to put more pressure on traders and the ag sector to eliminate deforestation and habitat conversion that’s driven by the expansion of commodity crops. This is happening in places like the Amazon, obviously, but also in other critical habitats that we forget about, like grasslands and wetlands. These habitats are incredible carbon stores but, unlike trees, they store it mostly below ground and out of sight. A quarter of emissions from ag is really coming from land use change.

The second is around what we call regenerative agriculture. We need food, but where are we going to grow agriculture and how do we do it better? Industrialized, intensified commercial agriculture has gone a long way toward feeding a growing population. But there’ve been a lot of tradeoffs, and we are feeling the brunt of those externalities and those costs now. There’s a lot of innovation, and there’s a lot of Indigenous and local knowledge that we can draw on to do agriculture better. Things like regenerative ranching with virtual fences, use of cover crops, no till, precision application of fertilizers that reduces waste.

And the third bucket is restoration. There are millions of acres of degraded lands that could be brought back into agricultural or agroforestry production, or restored back to nature. That offers a huge opportunity.

What are some of the major things that you’ll be paying attention to?

The big picture is the outcomes from the Global Stocktake. Are we even anywhere close to meeting our 1.5 degree goal? And, assuming we’re not, where are the gaps? I think the top line, obviously, is on the elimination of and transition away from fossil fuels. That has really important ties to agriculture because fossil fuel inputs, like synthetic fertilizers, make up a huge part of the footprint of ag. And then we talk so much about mitigation, and it is important. But there’s a huge gap in the financing for adaptation and a just transition in terms of energy and agriculture. A lot of the burden and onus is on smallholders. The countries that are the least responsible for the climate crisis are supposed to now leapfrog to adopt new technologies and develop differently than Western and developed countries did. So there are huge questions of fairness, and where the resources for a just transition are going to come from.

We hear a lot from industry during these conferences — pledges to go net zero or end deforestation. The food industry needs to take responsibility for its role in the climate crisis, but there’s the risk of greenwashing and a lack of accountability. What sorts of commitments would be meaningful from food industry players?

We believe that all of society has to play a role. The problem is not for governments alone to address. And WWF believes in partnership, but also pressure, in terms of the business sector. We really worked hard on the margins of the last climate conference to get more ambitious commitments from the traders on soy and beef and deforestation and habitat conversion to cropland. Some progress was made, but it wasn’t enough for us, especially on the conversion piece. The ambition was not there, and they were sort of wiggling out of [responsibility].

We also have to think about how companies are rolling out their initiatives, and the stories they tell around regenerative agriculture. How do we raise the level of ambition, and what does “good” look like? How do we get there? Regenerative ag is one sort of counterpart. Agroecology is another, but it is much more codified and in some circles has taken on a political dimension.

Regenerative ag, in its early days, was more holistic. But in the last decade, it’s been more focused only on carbon [sequestration] and soil health, which is critical, but there are no silver bullet solutions and we shouldn’t say you are regenerative if you’ve adopted these three practices. We really want a more holistic approach to what good should look like, whether you call it agroecology or regenerative ag. This should include not just practices but outcomes, and it should be grounded in the health dimensions of the food system and the social and economic conditions of the people who depend on food production for their livelihoods, as well in nature and climate.

How do you hold companies accountable for the commitments they make?

WWF has been working with multiple groups to develop credible, science-based approaches for companies to use to set their targets around agriculture and food and land use change. And we’re working on tools to have third-party accountability at the planetary and ecosystem level so that we can really see if commodities are still being sourced — illegally or legally — from converted habitats. We’re developing better tools, like Earth observation and other ways to monitor what’s actually happening on the ground and then use that information to hold companies accountable.