The entrance to the Plant Based Food Park at COP28 in Dubai. Photo by Paloma Jofre Videla

Food finally made it onto the agenda of a United Nations’ climate change summit.

The recent COP28 summit in Dubai was noted for a thick sheen of oil lobbyists, its controversial president (who heads a fossil fuel corporation), restrictions on protesters and the successful petrochemical industry push to reduce rather than phase out fossil fuels.

But it was also the first-ever U.N. climate summit to focus on the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the food we eat.

Dishes such as tofu masala naan tacos, falafel pitas, avocado toast with dukkah, tofu banh mi sandwiches and Impossible cheeseburgers dominated the menu across all COP28 summit venues and events. According to the event website, of an estimated 250,000 meals served, two-thirds were either vegetarian or vegan. That’s a big change from last year’s COP27 summit in Egypt, which was criticized for its lack of plant-based food.

“There are two main food courts, and the bigger one is where the food trucks only serve plant-based food,” Paloma Jofre Videla, a sophomore at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, said in a telephone interview from Dubai. She traveled there with a delegation of nine students and professor of global environmental politics Doreen Stabinsky. The college has official observer status at the event, and a college delegation has attended the U.N. gathering for 19 years.

Videla reported that representatives of the Plant Based Treaty had a visible presence at the summit, and that “this is the first COP where food systems have been addressed.”


Representatives of the Plant Based Treaty and other environmental groups held a protest at COP28 highlighting the need for a plant-based transition. Photo courtesy of the Plant Based Treaty

More than 150 countries pledged to include food system emissions in their climate action plans. Conference delegates also discussed the wonky but important topic of food “true cost accounting,” which adds normally hidden costs to market prices. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization devoted its 2023 food report to the topic, calculating the costs of greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen emissions, water use, land use changes, productivity losses associated both with undernourishment and “unhealthy dietary patterns,” such as too much meat.

The report pegged these hidden costs at more than $12 trillion a year, or $35 billion per day.

During COP28, a group of 50 oil and gas companies pledged to reduce methane leaks, which is significant since methane traps up to 80 times more heat than CO2 and leaves the atmosphere sooner, meaning its reduction will have faster results. Drastically reducing methane is crucial to meeting the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C target and avoiding catastrophic warming, according to the United Nations.

Intensive livestock farming is the largest source of agricultural emissions, and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization finds that more than 30 percent of human-caused methane emissions come from livestock. At the summit, the FAO issued a “roadmap” to lowering agricultural emissions that would require Americans to cut food waste and to move to flexitarian diets with far fewer animal products.

Senior Aishwarya Devarajan, also part of the College of the Atlantic delegation, said she heard more discussion of plant-based food and farming in side events than in the formal negotiating sessions. This gave the summit a “dystopian” feel, according to Devarajan, because delegates were “negotiating a way they can continue business as usual with respect to fossil fuel emissions and the global north’s unsustainable ways of life,” while frontline communities in poorer nations were sharing stories of their destruction and displacement.

The meat and dairy lobby attended COP28 in big numbers. The British newspaper The Guardian published leaked strategy memos from lobby group the Global Meat Alliance, outlining the industry’s coordinated effort at COP28 to promote the fallacy that intensive animal agriculture is good for the environment.


The newspaper also reported that more than 100 of the meat and dairy lobbyists at the summit traveled with a national delegation, giving them access to the negotiating sessions. Advocates for plant-based food and farming at COP28, with considerably less money, fewer lobbyists and little access to negotiating sessions, instead hosted side events, issued reports and held protests.

The Plant Based Treaty, for one, held a rally in support of the treaty at COP28. “The emissions from the food system alone will put the 1.5 and 2C climate target out of reach,” said Steven George, science ambassador for the Plant Based Treaty, in a statement issued from the summit.

Here in Maine, the state’s fledgling climate report does not address true cost accounting and has little to say about food and farming. What it does say is focused on increasing the percentage of Maine-produced food eaten in the state. That’s a laudable goal, but not the key issue for addressing climate change. According to Our World in Data, transportation makes up a very small percentage of greenhouse gas emissions from food. On average, just 10 percent of all farming emissions come from transportation, while in the highest emission foods, such as beef, transportation accounts for a mere 0.5 percent.

The good news is that Maine is in the process of updating its climate action plan, so there’s still an opportunity to include policy support for low emissions foods, such as yellow field peas, oats, soybeans and wheat, and increase the amount of plant-based food served in state-run catering operations. The Maine Climate Council welcomes input at

“I don’t know what the impact of serving two-thirds plant-based food at the COP will be, but it is a big step to start thinking about the importance of food when addressing the climate crisis,” Videla said. “I believe we must call for a radical transformation of food systems to address the climate crisis.”

Agreed. To make a difference, we need bold solutions and no more business as usual. The very visible food change at COP28 signals bigger changes to come in our global food system. Of course, no one needs to wait for a climate action plan. Becoming a climate-friendly flexitarian can start at the next meal.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. Reach her at

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