Smoke & Mirrors: Examining competing framings of food system sustainability


Read the briefing – ‘Smoke & Mirrors: Examining competing framings of food system sustainability’ at the bottom of this page.

Re-watch our food & COP27 workshop for journalists : ‘BEYOND CARBON: Food systems, Climate and Greenwashing at COP27’

Ahead of international climate negotiations in Egypt (COP27) with food systems high on the agenda for the first time, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) warns a growing number of green buzzwords are being used to obstruct food system reform. One particular term, ‘nature-based solutions’, is rapidly gaining traction at international summits, but it lacks an agreed definition, a transformative vision, and is being used to maintain agribusiness as usual, the new analysis shows.

Agri-food corporations, philanthropists, governments and some conservation groups are expected to promote ‘nature-based solutions’ at COP27, but this often amounts to little more than greenwashing of harmful industrial agricultural practices, says IPES-Food. ‘Nature-based solutions’ are being bundled with unproven carbon offsetting schemes that are risky for land competition, the climate, and that entrench big agribusiness power.

By contrast, analysis of key terms shows ‘agroecology’, an ecologically, socially and economically sustainable approach to food and farming, has been clearly defined through inclusive governance processes and includes a more comprehensive pathway towards food system sustainability, yet is being sidelined in food, climate and biodiversity summits.

Molly Anderson, IPES-Food expert and Chair in Food Studies at Middlebury College, said: 

“COP27 faces crucial decisions on agriculture. Rapidly transitioning to more sustainable and resilient food systems is vital if we are to limit global warming and prevent mass crop failures. Yet in our study of international negotiations, undefined terms like ‘nature-based solutions’ are being deployed to keep the focus on vague aspirations – it’s really just another form of greenwashing. True food system solutions emerge through global, deliberative, democratic processes, and agroecology is the best solution that meets that criteria today.” 

Melissa Leach, IPES-Food expert and Director of the Institute of Development Studies, said: 

“There’s a battle of ideas over the future of food systems. Very loose terms like ‘nature-based solutions’ are being bandied about in international summits without clear definitions, and they’re open to being mobilized in the interests of all kinds of agendas. At worst they are a cover for green grabs that undermine people’s rights and threaten the land and resources they depend on. COP27 must be really careful about the use of these ambiguous terms and reject solutions that are not clearly defined.”


It will be published online at

IPES-Food investigated three food system solutions quickly gaining recognition in global policy and funding spaces on food systems – ‘agroecology’, ‘nature-based solutions’, and ‘regenerative agriculture’. The study looked at the use of these three concepts in three international summits affecting the future of food systems – the UN food systems summit, climate change summit (COP26), and the Convention on biological diversity (CBD).

IPES-Food urges policy actors, observers, and advocates in global governance spaces on food, climate, and the environment to:

  • Foster inclusive deliberation on food system solutions that tackle environmental and social challenges together, challenging concepts that disregard entrenched power differentials.

  • Strive to use terms consistently across different fora, ensuring that broadly agreed definitions, principles, and practices are carried forward between them.

  • Rejecting solutions that exploit ambiguity instrumentally to favour business as usual and lack definitions, while promoting awareness and clarity of proposed food system solutions.

IPES-Food further supports African small-scale farmers’ calls for COP27 to put agroecology at the centre of climate adaptation and finance, creating resilience for small-scale farmers, fishers, pastoralists, indigenous communities and their food systems.

IPES-Food is one of organizing partners of the Food4Climate Pavilion, bringing food system transformation to the heart of COP27

IPES-Food (The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems) is an independent, expert panel shaping debates on how to transition to sustainable food systems around the world | @ipesfood