United States former President Barack Obama talks during the "Seeds & Chips - Global Food Innovation" summit, in Milan.
Image: AP/Luca Bruno

Barack Obama may not be the president of the United States anymore, but as a private citizen, he’s continuing to fight for the humanitarian and environmental policies his administration pursued while he was in the White House.

At the Global Food Innovation Summit in Milan, Italy, Obama spoke about the global food system, its relationship with climate change, and how innovations in technology and entrepreneurship will affect the agriculture industry in the future. It was a far-ranging conversation that mixed policy prescriptions with simple encouragements for ordinary people.

“When most of the world’s poor work in agriculture, the stark imbalances that we have worked hard to close, will be even harder,” he said in his opening remarks. “Some of the refugee flows originate from some places where climate change is having an impact.”

“Part of this is also going to be wasting less food, especially in US where we waste 40%.”

Take Action: Make the Pledge to Cut Food Waste

His interview with Sam Kass, former White House chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy, focused on climate change in the early going.  

Obama said that, unlike the energy sector, which has been adapting their practices because of climate change, the food sector hasn’t changed much, and that’s partially because of the lack of public education about the largely overlooked connection between food and climate change.

“We haven’t publicized in the past the impact of food production on greenhouse gas emissions. … People aren’t familiar with the impact of cows, and methane, unless you’re a farmer. Some of it is lack of knowledge in the general public.”

Read More: 7 Ways the Obamas Worked to Keep People Fed

Education was also key, he said, to making people aware of the health risks of certain food.

Considering that 30% of healthcare cost increases are due to obesity-related diseases, Obama said people will make healthier choices if we had a public education campaign.

Much of the progress made in the US toward healthier diets, “wasn’t legislation or laws, but telling parents about what unhealthy eating was doing to their children,” he said. “I think the key for a consumer perspective is just giving people good information.”

Where the information comes from can be crucial, however.

Obama highlighted how former first lady Michelle Obama’s success in advocating for healthier meals for kids was because she, “came at the problem as a parent and not as a policymaker.”

But strategies must address producers as well as consumers, according to Obama. He stressed that governments must work with small farmers, many of whom are constantly on the verge of losing their farms, to produce the same amounts of food more efficiently, without costing them much-needed income.

“If you’re putting environmental protection over their economic interests they’re going to resist you.”

Obama was also skeptical that people would stop eating meat – which greatly contributes to methane gas in the atmosphere and uses vast amounts of land that could be repurposed for farming – anytime soon because so many large countries have growing middle classes that are going to start eating more meat because they can finally afford it.

Read More: How One Group Is Using Biofortification to End Global Malnutrition

Another reason diets haven’t changed in response to environmental problems is because of the cultural role food plays in our lives.

“Food is a very emotional issue. Especially here in Milan,” Obama said. “Food’s important. Before I came here, I actually went to see DaVinci’s ‘Last Supper.’ Even in our religion and our art, food is important. So because food is so close to us and is part of our families and what we do every single day, people I think are more resistant to the idea of government telling us what to eat, how to eat, what to grow. Some of it is that resistance.”

Shifting gears from politics to science, Obama claimed people must not be closed-minded about food that has been genetically modified (GMO).

“Humans have always engaged in genetic modification,” he said, citing that crops like corn, wheat, and rice look different now than they did 1000 years ago because of revolutions in agricultural practices.

“We can’t stop now in discovering new things.”

Obama acknowledged caution is understandable, considering cigarettes were once believed to be healthy, but that “can’t be the cause of stopping the conversation.”

Obama urged individuals to be socially active and to engage with people in power. He discussed the effectiveness of the internet and social media – pivotal tools in his successful presidential campaigns – to deliver messages and ideas and to inspire action in only a matter of minutes.    

Responding directly to a 13-year-old and two 7-year-olds who asked what they can do to help the global food crisis, Obama told them to act locally with friends, parents, and through institutions like schools.

“Wherever you live, I guarantee you there are some hungry people there.”

In terms of long-term solutions, Obama went back to the “give a man a fish/teach a man to fish” mantra.

There are emergency zones that require immediate delivery of food, he said, but in the developing world the best thing is to teach people efficient farming practices so they can be self-sufficient.  

In the end, Obama brought the discussion full circle back to climate change: “don’t burn up the planet,” he said.

Teaching communities efficient farming practices is all for naught if rising tides and extreme weather destroys them in the end, he said.

Read More: How a Tiny Alaska Town Is Leading the Way on Climate Change

Throughout the event, Obama’s statements widely reflected finding a balance between government and individual action.

The Paris agreement didn’t solve climate change, but provided the architecture for a global response, he said. Similarly, governments must provide the mechanisms and positive incentives for solving waste and inequality in the global food system, while individuals must utilize them.

“The private sector has already decided that our future is in clean energy,” he said. “We’ve tried to create market incentives that have unlocked innovation in the energy sector. The same opportunity exists in the food sector.”


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Par James O'Hare