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Two thirds of meals served at COP28 were vegan or vegetarian, which could make this year’s conference a model for future climate events.
Words by Lyse Mauvais
If we are what we eat, then for many years climate negotiators have been a sad line-up of bland-looking processed food, tasteless tuna wraps and soggy ham and cheese sandwiches.
The UN Climate’s yearly conference on climate change (known as the COP, for Conference of Parties) changes location every year, but the food has been consistently disappointing. COP menus have been described as overpriced, unhealthy and sometimes even wholly insufficient. Until this year, the world’s most important climate conference has been fueled by meat and dairy dishes — the leading drivers of food-related emissions.
This year at COP28 however, organizers have taken unprecedented steps to make meals more “climate-conscious” by shifting the menu away from meat and dairy dishes. The result is a joyful display of plant-based creativity that’s lifting spirits among some participants — and could serve as a model for future gatherings. According to analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity, serving a low-carbon menu at a 500-person event saves the emissions equivalent of driving 22,000 miles by car.
Two-thirds of meals served this year at the Dubai venue are either vegetarian or vegan. Plant-themed food courts have drawn bustling crowds by showcasing a flurry of options — from vegan ice cream and cookies, to pea-based shawarma and loaded bean burritos. Even if most of the sandwiches sold at coffee stands are still soggy, they’re at least filled with nutrient-rich spinach and lentils, rather than plasticky, preservative-infused mortadella.
The abundance of legumes and veggies on the menu this year comes after years of sustained campaigning by Food@Cop, a youth-led coalition advocating for climate-friendly food at the conference.
Formally launched after COP25 held in Madrid, Food@COP has been lobbying for more plants, less meat on the menu for every global conference since 2019. Livestock farming is responsible for an estimated 14.5 percent of global greenhouse emissions, and eating less meat is one of the most effective ways for people to curb their climate impact. A 2023 study by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis found that reducing our meat intake by 50 percent would reduce agricultural and land use related greenhouse gas emissions by 31 percent, and halt deforestation.
“It’s not just about vegan food,” Caroline Wimberly, Food@COP co-founder and climate engagement coordinator at One Acre Fund, tells Sentient Media. “I’ve been to and supported colleagues at COPs since 2011, and finding plants-based food was certainly a big challenge.” But the menu represents more than dietary preferences for attendees. “It was always the same old question: why are we not implementing,” Wimberly asks. “Why are we not walking the talk and having food that’s aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement?”
COP’s failure to “walk the talk” has an environmental cost, both at the conference and beyond. In 2018, analysis by Brighter Green, the Center for Biological Diversity and Farm Forward found that meat-heavy menus served at COP24 in Katowice, Poland could contribute to 4,000 metric tons of additional greenhouse gas emissions — equivalent to almost 900 cars on the roads for an entire year.
What’s more, the conference menu is an opportunity to showcase what climate action looks like, at least at the dinner table.
After an unsuccessful attempt to lobby the COP27 presidency last year for a change in what’s served, campaigners weren’t expecting much in Dubai.
Campaigners made three requests, says Lana Weidgenart, Food@COP co-founder and campaigns and policy manager at ProVeg International. “We asked for 75 percent plant-based food at COP, emissions labeling on all food and affordability.”
Their calls fell on receptive ears: Mariam Almheiri, UAE Environment Minister, COP28 Food Systems lead and a long-time supporter of healthy diets.
In October, Almheiri unveiled a key set of commitments towards a “1.5-aligned” menu, a plan for meals with with lower greenhouse gas emissions, as well as land and water use footprints, to ensure that foods served are in line with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
In order to curb emissions on the plate, organizers requested that two-thirds of food served be vegetarian or vegan, out of a total of 250,000 meals served each day by over 90 vendors around the venue. They also partnered with Nutritics, a food data management company, to design a tool to help chefs determine the environmental footprint of their food, and set up a composting circuit to minimize waste. Food waste is another massive source of climate pollution — as much as half of food-related greenhouse gas emissions.
The final result: COP28’s conference food has a much lower carbon footprint than previous global climate conferences, according to Laura Kirwan, Sustainability Lead Coordinator at Nutritics. “Over 70 percent of recipes out of 4000 were below 0.5 kg of carbon emissions, and around 90 percent were under 1 kg, which is very sustainable for a main course,” Kirwan announced on a December 10 panel discussion on the food served at COP.
With less meat on the menu, COP organizers wanted to “showcase how climate-friendly food can be tasty, nutritious and affordable.”
Several attendees complained the cost was as high as ever, unfortunately. “It’s expensive for what you get, but that’s sort of the deal when you eat at COP,” one delegate shrugged.
Conference organizers fared better on taste and healthfulness. Several local food tech companies jumped on the plant-based bandwagon, like Thryve and Switch Foods, a UAE-incubated food tech startup that only serves pea-based, meatless versions of staple Arabic street food, including a kafta wrap and kabab sandwich.
“Our food truck is doing really well, it’s gotten a lot of attention from both consumers and media,” Edward Hamod, CEO of Switch Foods, tells Sentient Media. Hamod worked for fifteen years in conventional food production, operating various flour mills, feed mills and dairy farms, before switching over to plant-based. He launched Switch Food in 2021, after the realization hit him that the food system was “broken.”
COP28 has provided the company with a crucial opportunity to showcase its products and grow its consumer base, first through a booth in the Green Zone, which is the area of the conference open to the public. In the Blue Zone, which is only open to registered conference participants, “we are selling about 300 tickets a day, and there are always long queues in front of our food truck, which means that people and consumers are looking for us,” Hamod says.
Long lines of omnivores hit the vegan food stalls, seizing an opportunity to explore meat alternatives for a few days. “I just ate a kofta wrap, and I don’t know what it was made of exactly, but it was plant-based meat and it was really delicious,” says one flexitarian delegate and first-time COP attendee, surrounded by colleagues who nodded their agreement.
While the change to COP menus is welcome, it’s unclear whether it will spur a bigger, much-needed dietary shift. The planet consumes too much meat, and the UAE is no exception. Its residents consume 174 pounds of meat per capita on average — which is below the U.S. average of 274 pounds, but still well-above recommended thresholds. “We live in a region that is mostly dominated by meat consumers, and is one of the highest meat-consuming regions globally,” Hamod says.
What’s served at conferences and larger institutions like schools and hospitals also lags behind: most of the food served at events worldwide is produced with little consideration for its environmental impact.
COP28 could be a “benchmark” to do better, Kirwan says. “I think we all recognize there’s a big gap in the market for this, and to be able to prove that it can done at scale is absolutely massive. Now there’s no excuse for events not to be serving a 1.5-aligned menu,” she tells a cheering assembly of chefs.
Correction: This piece was corrected to reflect that the 2018 emissions analysis of menus at COP24 was carried out by three organizations, not one: Brighter Green, the Center for Biological Diversity and Farm Forward.
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