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Blue foods at COP27: Q&A with Michelle Tigchelaar

Aerial view of Red Sea next to city.
Aerial view of the Red Sea and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Image credit: Olya Solodenko

As the world increasingly takes action on climate change, decision-makers still often neglect an important piece of the climate puzzle—our food systems. Countries are falling short on food systems investments and actions towards mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. For example, only 3% of public climate finance currently goes toward food systems, according to a report from the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. In the face of a changing climate, we need to maintain food systems resilience and transition them towards net-zero emissions, where food systems produce no more greenhouse gas emissions than they remove. 

The recent UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP27) in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt was a key moment to take action. For the first time, the conference included a Food Systems Pavilion, and discussions related to food systems were more prominent than ever before. Still, blue foods, while vital to these transformations, are underrepresented in mitigation and adaptation plans, and at global conferences like COP27. In the transformation to net-zero, we need to look at food systems as a whole, both green and blue.

Blue Food Assessment member Michelle Tigchelaar, a research scientist at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, joined conversations at COP27 to ensure blue foods were on the table, participating in side events at the Food Systems Pavilion and Resilience Hub, and highlighting the role of blue foods in net-zero food systems. Here, Tigchelaar shares key takeaways from her experience at COP27, and opportunities to build momentum for climate action over the next year.

What were your expectations heading into COP27?

This was an exciting COP as previously, food systems haven’t really been represented within the climate space, instead focusing on energy and transportation. This year there were several pavilions dedicated to food and the role it has in tackling climate change. It was an important opportunity to make sure that as food enters the climate negotiation scene, blue foods are recognized as a central component of both mitigation and adaptation discussions, targets, and investments.

You participated in the first-ever Food Systems Pavilion. How did that space amplify the voice of individuals and organizations working to accelerate action on food?

I was thrilled to take part in the activities of the Food Systems Pavilion. The pavilion was co-organized by around 10 organizations within the food sector, each bringing different expertise, partners, and perspectives. At any given time, there were always people to interact and connect with on food and climate issues.

The pavilion included a thematic Blue Food and Water Day. What was participating in that programming like and what were the biggest outcomes from the day?

It was great to see a day dedicated to blue food and water. In a sense, it was a bit of a “lost children” day. Both of these themes are important to tackling climate change but, unfortunately, are rarely part of official negotiations and outcomes at COPs. Other pavilions also had blue food-related themes on their agendas during that day. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had an aquatic food systems and gender theme, which really brought to life the need to connect social and environmental agendas. 

In other ways, COP27 was also challenging. Many discussions were siloed within a sector and/or a cluster of organizations. For future COPs, it will be important to consider how to break those siloes and invest in discussions and spaces where people from different sectors can discuss the intersections of climate, water, and blue foods.

In advance of COP27, you wrote about “blue prosperity” in an op-ed with WorldFish’s Essam Yassin Mohammed. Could you expand on this framework and what it means in the context of climate action?

If we look back at the ‘Compound Climate Risks Threaten Aquatic Food System Benefits’ paper that the Blue Food Assessment published in 2021, we calculated the climate risk to the many benefits that aquatic food systems deliver. Climate risk is a combination of the climate hazards—like rising temperatures, moving fish stocks, and increasing storms—that a country is facing, its dependence on blue foods for nutrition, livelihoods, and economic revenue, and how vulnerable people are to climate change impacts, which is based on things like rates of poverty, access to financial services, and rates of malnutrition. We found that in many countries, this vulnerability component is a major driver of climate risk.

While future investments in adaptation or mitigation could reduce climate hazards or adjust blue food production to a changing climate, they may not address the structural issues that make people more vulnerable to climate change. “Blue prosperity” is about moving beyond the idea of just adapting to climate change—effectively maintaining the status quo—and instead specifically making the kind of investments that would allow communities to thrive in a changing climate.

COP27 was an opportunity to discuss pathways to low-carbon food systems—from blue carbon ecosystems, to adaptation and mitigation plans, to addressing unsustainable practices. How did you see these themes emerging in the dialogues?

Many conversations at COP27 stayed at a very high level. For example, we discussed that blue foods could be a part of low-carbon diets, but dialogues didn’t cover the details of what that would entail. For blue carbon, in particular, I think there’s a need to bridge silos across the ocean, nature-based solutions, and food systems communities to ensure that we find the co-benefits and avoid the trade-offs between different dimensions of sustainability. 

Were there any surprising conversations or things you learned while in Sharm El-Sheikh?

Some institutions brought animal welfare in both fisheries and aquaculture to the discussions. I thought that was an interesting dimension because it’s not a topic that we explored in the Blue Food Assessment. They shared insights about improving production practices such that animals would suffer less in the process. For example, in the case of fisheries, they showcased some innovations that could reduce bycatch or could cause less stress to fish. It’s important to push the boundaries of the status quo, and consider what is just, right and moral, and include this vision in a sustainable blue food future.

What do you consider to be the biggest outcomes of this conference?

I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but there was little ambitious progress on mitigation or on meeting adaptation funding targets. Another disappointment was discussions around the Koronivia Process. The hope was to get it expanded from a narrow agricultural framing to a larger food system framing, but there was strong pushback from certain countries on that.

On a positive note, at the eleventh hour, we did get framework language on loss and damage, a push championed by climate-vulnerable countries. This is a big win for those who have been at the losing end of climate impacts. The strong presence of “food” on the agenda and in conference dialogues does lay a foundation for more detailed work in the upcoming year and more ambitious goals for COP28.

The climate community will convene again next year at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates. What are the key priorities to keep food systems and blue foods on the climate agenda at COP28 and beyond?

First, keeping the Koronivia Process alive, making sure it is expanded to food systems, which should also  include blue foods. This should be achievable seeing how more than a hundred organizations mobilized at COP27 to push for this goal. And second, getting to a stage where food systems are actively included in mitigation targets. Several global initiatives on food and climate were announced at COP27, and it will be interesting to see where they go in the next year. The UAE has signaled that food will be an important topic for them. One thing to watch out for is the role that agriculture and food corporations will have in shaping the future of sustainable and nutritious food systems. More than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists were present at COP27—I hope we don’t end up with a similar corporate takeover on food.

Read more about blue foods at COP27 >