My Key Learnings from #FoodCOP27: Innovation, Female Leadership, and Voluntary Commitments

Ten days later, I am still reflecting on my time at COP27 – the challenges and frustrations, inspiration, and the many learnings in between. Ultimately, my takeaway was that it can be all of those things, all at once, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage. In fact, it means that we should. In the course of two weeks, I attended and spoke on panels, took walk-and-talk meetings between sessions (oftentimes so that one of us could guide the other to the next location without getting lost), had long, thought-provoking dinner conversations, and stumbled into serendipitous opportunities along the way. The energy was dynamic, there was no shortage of deep-thinking, and many rejuvenating friendships were made in the space along the way. Here are just a few of the learnings that I’ll carry with me into the new year and beyond, and maybe they’ll resonate with you too. 

  1. Breaking down silos between the government, private sector, financial institutions, and civil society are more important than ever. Each of these sectors are interconnected, and collaboration is key in moving forward to maximize what we can get done with finite resources and the the tight timeline we have left.
  2. During my time on the USCIB/ICC panel, Keeping Voluntary Pledges on Track for Trust, Transparency, and Impact, on November 16, I was humbled to be sitting in the presence of such esteemed climate and business experts discussing the need to balance aspiration and pragmatism in terms of making and tracking voluntary private sector commitments. It’s imperative these commitments are meaningful, achievable, and transparent – balancing the need for urgent and ambitious action, combatting greenwashing, yet also being mindful of the very real challenges that companies of all sizes face in tackling ESG, especially those that fall into the SME (small and medium-sized enterprises) category (which is around 90% of all businesses globally). 

The biggest question is not whether we do this, but how? It’s the primary question, and one we spent an hour barely scratching the surface of.  To start, companies need to make ambitious and also achievable commitments, share where they are with their progress and how far they’ve come, and openly and honestly communicate the challenges ahead so that the public (and their consumers and partners) feel engaged in and part of the journey, especially if adjustments need to be made. It’s equally important to celebrate ‘continuous improvement,’ acknowledging the wins that have been made and the steps and improvements still to come, instead of only focusing on the greatest wins and aspirations, which can and is creating ‘commitment wariness.’ And perhaps, most importantly, the takeaway from this panel is that globally we need to find a way to support SMEs in their ESG journey as they are a majority of global businesses with the greatest range in terms of resources and ESG expertise to leverage to make improvements. And this doesn’t just mean (or stop with) a series of guidelines.  I challenge you to think through what this means. Do we need standardization – what are the strengths and also limitations? Do we need accelerators or support services – and how do we get business councils or chambers of commerce involved in rolling out fit-for-purpose programming? Are the current guidelines meeting all of the needs? The questions are many and we need much more dialogue, including vital SME stakeholders, on this topic to move the needle forward. 

  1. Female leadership was also the front and center conversation during our all-women panel hosted by Food Tank and big thanks to them for bringing this discussion to the forefront of an international conference like COP27. We all agreed that the power of female leadership not only needs to be honored and celebrated, but it’s time for it to be prioritized in our food system from large corporations and producers,  to processors, and smallholder farmers or small-scale fishers. Where do we start? A few ideas that were discussed include: stopping the  perpetuation of ‘manels’ (ever looked around and saw all men featured on countless panels? Those are ‘manels’), covering more female leaders in the media, funding female-led businesses, and celebrating the leadership women bring to your team — we all play a role in shifting this cycle. Together, we can empower the female leadership that’s needed to realize the potential of the future of food.
  1. The climate and the ocean face unprecedented challenges that require unique and expedited innovations and solutions. To get there,  we need human ingenuity, and all of the brightest minds, to come together. It’s time to focus less on what may not work and more on what could work, and the suite of solutions that we’ll need (hint: it’s all of them – thanks to Melissa Kopolow for the conversation on this). In terms of the ocean, we believe in the power of blue foods, and that alternative seafood and products (from plant-based to cell-cultured and everything in between) belong inside this big tent of solutions. Public Private Partnerships (PPP)  are needed to take innovations from research and development to scale and we need to focus on a collaborative, ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ approach.

I know there are a lot of mixed emotions and sometimes confusing feelings around COP – I’ve heard, discussed, and had them before, during, and after attending. After reflecting on this, I’ve landed on the conclusion that  they can co-exist and all be equally valid. Is it frustrating to witness the realities and failures around our climate progress? Yes, completely. Can it also be a bit of an inefficient maze (wandering around trying to find pavilions and attending an endless series of panels)? Yes, also true. Equally importantly, it’s also deeply soul-filling to meet the tenacious top-class global talent that insists on showing up to brainstorm big ideas and to ponder philosophical questions about how we can, and must, do better. It’s also extremely inspiring to see the sheer number of people that carry their learnings, networks, and passion home to push for change on the local, regional, and national levels thanks to convening opportunities like COP. Once I accepted that these feelings could co-exist, it was a relieving moment for me, where I no longer had to try and figure out what to think of COP or how to categorize it — it is all of it, all at once, and that can be true.