You are what you eat or so the saying goes, and the planet is too. With poor diet being a leading risk factor for death and disease and food systems accounting for approximately 30% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, sustainable healthy diets are a mutual friend of the nutrition and climate change agendas. The recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) provided a venue to embed nutrition and sustainable healthy diets (SHDs) in the climate discourse and illustrate to participating negotiators how the world’s ability to deliver on the 2030 Agenda and abate disaster depends on it.
The two-week conference in Glasgow unfolded between 31 October and 12 November 2021, backed by a series of virtual and hybrid format side events that took place at the margins of the negotiations. As extreme weather events continued around the world and ocean levels rise along with temperatures (water and atmospheric), participants faced a tall challenge, discussing measures to accelerate progress towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
UN Nutrition engagement at COP26
UN Nutrition mobilized for COP26 to raise awareness about the links between nutrition and climate change, game-changing solutions stemming from the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) and country successes. While a number of UN agencies engaged in COP26, two UN Nutrition members ‒ the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Health Organization (WHO) ‒ had pavilions, hosting onsite events and exhibiting related materials. UN Nutrition also participated in events, held at the Rockefeller, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Nourish Scotland pavilions, among others.
Side events on different facets of nutrition
WHO’s Health Pavilion hosted over 60 side events, including two that directly explored the role of sustainable healthy diets. For example, a joint EAT/UN Nutrition/WHO/Stanford University event (2nd November) focused on blue food systems in small island developing states (SIDS), highlighting the twin crisis ‒ climate change and high levels of noncommunicable diseases ‒ these nations are battling. Zitouni Ould-Dada, Deputy Director of the Office of Climate Change, Biodiversity and Environment at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) moderated the event on behalf of UN Nutrition, explaining how climate change is altering marine ecosystems, and inadvertently, the food our waters can yield.
Panelists such as Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety at WHO, and Rt. Hon. Helen Clark, Former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), explained that this is contributing to an overreliance on imported foods, often processed and obesogenic, posing great risks for human health in addition to dramatic environmental consequences. Among the speakers, H.E. Bruce Bilimon, Minister of Health and Human Services in the Marshall Islands, Dr. Shakuntala Thilsted from WorldFish and 2021 World Food Prize Laureate, and youth activists underscored the important role aquatic foods play in healthy diets, livelihoods as well as their potential to safeguard planetary health. Peter Thomson, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, closed the discussion, contextualizing it in terms of the action needed for his grandchildren (their generation) and underscoring the urgency for positive change. “We have to take the findings of the food summit, particularly in relation to aquatic foods, through now into implementation and that includes keeping that whole mindset/the outcomes from the Food Systems Summit on the international agenda so that when we go to Kunming in April for the Biodiversity COP, we have to be talking about food systems in relation to biodiversity loss,” stated Mr. Thomson. In the same breath, he later reminded participants that “70‒90% of biodiversity (i.e. life) is hosted by the ocean.”
On 9th November, WFP, WHO, the UN Nutrition Secretariat and the Swiss government organized a hybrid event at the Health Pavilion, entitled For tackling climate, environmental, nutrition and health challenges, we shall all meet at the table. Professor Jessica Fanzo from Johns Hopkins University, sounded the alarm bells in a data-packed keynote address, pushing for a ‘business unusual approach’. The event profiled country experiences about how to put nutrition at the heart of climate negotiations from Guyana to Switzerland. Climate negotiator, Karla Mena Soto from Costa Rica, shared insights about how the country is integrating sustainability criteria into new food-based dietary guidelines (FBDGs) in pursuit of win-wins (learn more here). Dr. Leslie Ramsammy, Advisor to the Minister of Health of Guyana, and Patrick Mink from the Swiss Federal Office for Agriculture’s International Affairs promoted the OneHealth approach as a means to these interrelated challenges. H.R.H. Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan and WFP Special Advisor on Maternal and Child Nutrition delivered a provocative final call for action, urging participants to take off their institutional hats and work together on practical solutions for people. She also emphasized that good nutrition is the bedrock of women’s/girls’ needs, and that women are on the frontline of change, while underscoring a pressing “need to make visible, the invisible.”
IFAD carried out multiple events at its COP26 pavilion, which in particular promoted the role of small-scale producers in climate change adaptation and mitigation. These included an engaging session as part of IFAD’s Recipes for Change (5th November) series, where weather presenter Clare Nasir and Chef Pierre Thiam met farmers in Chad and Nepal and cooked local food. The event highlighted the threats that the changing climate are posing to these traditional dishes and communities. Another event focused on Indigenous Peoples (8th November), who are among the most affected by climate change, and yet least responsible for the environmental consequences they face today in view of their symbiotic relationship with nature.
A different side event, in collaboration with the World Food Programme (WFP), explored the nexus of climate change, conflict and malnutrition, while a dynamic FOODtalk on healthy planet and well-nourished people (10th November) profiled a range of perspectives from livestock experts to young innovators, such as Abdallah Smith, Managing Director of the Ghana Food Movement. “We’re about having a change on Ghana’s food system. We already see that this year from all of our chefs in the our programme, who have adopted a plant-based diet or a plant-based dish in their menu or in the events they’ve have over the dinners,” stated Abdallah. He explained how the movement is using creative strategies from ‘dine and dance’ events to food safaris, where participants see foods in their natural state.
In addition, FAO was present and even held two nutrition-related pre-COP26 side events, shining a spotlight on the links between biodiversity and nutrition in the context of climate change. The first of these was co-organized by the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement Secretariat (SMS) with the Global Alliance on Climate-Smart Agriculture (GACSA), while the second provided an opportunity for youth speakers and panelists to present their ideas and actions. Furthermore, connections between nutrition and water management were highlighted during a side event (9th November), co-organized by SMS together with the SUN Civil Society Network and Action Against Hunger (ACF) at the Water Pavilion, which particularly showcased multi-sectoral/stakeholder efforts and synergistic solutions in order to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Other events, such as the session on A New Approach to Meat, co-organized by Food Tank, Aleph Farms and Nourish Scotland, unpacked specific aspects of the ‘business unusual approach.’ This event zoomed into the need to consume more plant-rich diets to stay within the 1.5-degree threshold of the Paris Agreement. Here, UN Nutrition Executive Secretary, Stineke Oenema, highlighted the benefits of reducing meat consumption in societies that are currently consuming in excess, both on human and planetary health, while ensuring vulnerable populations, such as women and young children in low-resource settings have access to livestock-derived foods to meet their nutrient requirements.
Furthermore, the UNFCCC Global Innovation Hub (8th November) featured a half-day session on healthier food systems for a healthier planet, where the UN Nutrition Executive Secretary, also intervened. During the landscape session of this event, the UN Nutrition Executive Secretary also explained that, “sustainable healthy diets are anchored in local contexts and cultures, and thus are very much central to territorial approaches.
The sheer number of nutrition-related side events and vast diversity of the topics covered enabled nutrition to be prominently featured at the COP for the first time in history. One common message reverberated across the various events. “The nutrition crisis is both a cause and a symptom of the climate emergency,”1 necessitating increased collaboration between the nutrition and environmental communities now more than ever.
Looking forward to COP27
While there was a good sense of accomplishment for having made noise about nutrition at COP26, stakeholders are already looking towards next year’s conference in Egypt to make sure that nutrition is featured in the negotiations, not just the surrounding events. Many actors present at COP26 called for a ‘Food Day’ during COP27 and UN Nutrition stands ready to mobilize members for this cause.
The climate agenda will fall short of achieving the Paris Agreement targets if actions only focus on the energy and transportation sectors. As Professor Fanzo underscored in her keynote address, food systems transformation, particularly a shift that puts nutrition at the center, and harnessing the political momentum of global efforts like COP26, the UNFSS, the 2030 Agenda and the United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016‒2025) will be key to stay within the 1.5-degree C temperature rise parameter. Likewise, learning from successful experiences that countries, like Costa Rica, are adopting can help to guide other nations and the international community so that climate change unlocks positive change, starting today.