Food systems are at risk of greenwashing—here’s how to fight back

The term ‘food systems’ is becoming mainstream. As political momentum to address the climate impact of food and agriculture grows, so too do the lobbying and greenwashing efforts by vested interests in fossil fuels, chemicals, and the food industry. 

These industry groups are increasingly employing phrases like food systems, regenerative agriculture, and nature-based solutions as buzzwords, issuing empty promises that lack accountability and undermine the true spirit of the terms. 

We’re seeing the repercussions of this mainstreaming in the global climate agenda, where food is finally being recognized as a significant contributor to, and a way to mitigate, the effects of climate change. At the international climate conference, COP28, in Dubai, we saw dozens of food and retail giants issue climate-related commitments that were mysteriously missing an assessment framework or targets. 

Big agrifood is jostling to find its place in the climate conversation and would have you believe that they are the saviors—that business as usual with a few tweaks is sufficient to address the climate crisis. Presence from lobby groups at COP28 was enough to tell the story: three times as many delegates representing agri-business as compared to previous years. 

Outside of the climate agenda, food systems are capturing headlines worldwide. From skyrocketing supermarket prices to global food shortages compounded by conflict in Ukraine to rising hunger and malnutrition, more people than ever are paying attention to food and agriculture. Fossil fuel companies are capitalizing on political concerns about food insecurity to argue that the industrial production of food is the most viable solution—and that, of course, depends on our use of petrochemicals. 

The misleading information and false impressions being spread by lobby groups is greenwashing, and it’s reaching an alarming level. In this battle of the narratives, the food systems community needs to fight back by providing alternative, compelling narratives grounded in evidence and equity.

Fortunately, we have tactics that work.

Tactic 1: Strike back against greenwashing using strategic communications

The first tactic is to break free of our echo chambers. It’s easy for food systems leaders to talk only to other food systems leaders, thinking everyone is on the same page. But striking back against greenwashing means using strategic communications to get our agenda on the minds of government policymakers, civil society groups, funders, and other influential stakeholders.

For example, ahead of COP28 the Global Alliance released a hard-hitting new analysis looking at why it’s critical we wean industrial food systems off fossil fuels. This timing was deliberate. With the United Arab Emirates holding this year’s Presidency, we knew there was going to be a record number of fossil fuel lobbyists at the climate talks. By releasing a report centered on the agenda of the people we were targeting, we were able to better advocate for the relevance of food systems in the climate agenda.

We also took advantage of country pavilions at COP—similar forums of discussion are found at other UN-level global convenings. Our goal was to create allies with national-level stakeholders, since at the end of the day they are the ones influencing domestic policy. 

Tactic 2: Connect farmers and frontline leaders with the media

The second tactic is to utilize the role of the media. Good journalists are always looking for opposing views. For every fertilizer company saying they’re going to solve the global food crisis, there’s thousands of farmers who can talk about the consequence those fertilizers have had on local health, water sources, and biodiversity. 

The food systems community needs to actively link the voices of farmers and other frontline food leaders with the media. At COP28, the Global Alliance saw how media and key message training improved the ability of the frontline food leaders we sponsored to have their messages resonate with journalists (and other stakeholders).  

Meanwhile, a media guide proactively distributed to members of the press created a list of expert sources and diverse spokespeople. When frontline food leaders are able to tell their stories to the right people, their authenticity and lived experience speaks for itself.

Tactic 3: Platform frontline food leaders to counter greenwashing

Finally, the third tactic is to take aim at greenwashing head-on. Certain stakeholders, country negotiators included, may typically only connect with industry. We need to bring the voices of frontline food leaders into these spaces and provide an alternative narrative to what is being pushed by industry. 

For example, influential private sector interests organized many panels and side events at COP. Each presents an opportunity to advance what resilient, healthy, and equitable food systems really look like. By training frontline food leaders to clearly articulate their message, while also being aware of how to challenge cases of greenwashing and corporate presence, these individuals can perform more effectively in these spaces.

The mainstreaming of food systems is what we want—we need more people talking about how we produce, transport, consume, and dispose of our food. After all, food systems impact our health, environment, jobs, culture, and virtually every other element of our lives. 

What is dangerous, however, is when powerful lobby groups try to take hold of the reins and steer the conversation in a way that serves to benefit them. It’s time to make sure alternative narratives—ones that are more sustainable and equitable—are at the same level and on the same playing field. The tactics mentioned above are a few ways to start. 

Whether at future climate COP convenings, UN biodiversity conventions, Davos, or in the media, public awareness about food systems is here to stay. Let’s ensure the wisdom and experiences of frontline food leaders are, too.

By Patty Fong
Program Director, Climate and Health & Well-being