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Obama Comes Out of Hiding to Talk Food and Climate Change

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The discussion with former White House chef Sam Kass also touched on technology and politics

Andreas Solaro/Getty Images

Earlier today, President Barack Obama sat next to his former White House chef and current food policy advocate Sam Kass for a talk and discussion on climate change and food systems at Seeds and Chips, a Global Food Innovation Summit, taking place now in Milan.

The conversation ranged from chit chat about what the 44th President of the United States is doing in his time off (building the Obama Presidential Center, working on his third book, and “fighting Michelle for more closet space” at home) to conversations about how to ensure everyone in the world has a chance to live a healthful, fulfilling, productive life in the face of a rapidly changing political climate, increased amounts of food waste, and a growing dependence upon technology.


The event reportedly raised $4.5 million for the Obama Foundation, and was viewed by well over a million people on various channels including Facebook live, worldwide.

Kass opened the discussion with an overview of the global food system, “one of the most inefficient systems of our modern times, the second-leading cause of greenhouse gasses.” Kass noted the awful paradox that so much climate change is a result of the inefficiencies in the food system, and that this was “making it harder for us to grow food.”

“We are wasting a third of what we produce — you cannot imagine a gas company wasting a third of what they produce,” Kass said, while noting that “... globally, we still see massive amounts of malnutrition and hunger.”

President Obama’s opening remarks were a straightforward but candid view of how he sees climate change’s potential short- and long-term effects. He touched on technology as a potential solution, and as a salve for some of the food and labor insecurities he sees around the world. His talk also outlined how emissions standards and agricultural policy in the advanced and developing world will shape the land we live on, air we breathe, and food we eat as the world climbs towards a population of 9 billion by 2050.

Here now, some of Obama’s insights from among the many topics discussed during the more than 90-minute event:

THE POLITICS OF FOOD

On climate change’s impact on food production: “Our change in climate is already making it more it difficult to produce food. We’ve already seen shrinking yields and spiking food prices that in some cases are leading to political instability.”

On income inequality: “When most of the world’s poor work in agriculture, the stark imbalances we’ve worked so hard to close between developed and developing countries will be even tougher to close. The costs will be borne by people in poor nations that are least equipped to handle it.”

On the impact of food insecurity on refugee crises: “Some of the refugee flows into Europe originate not only from conflict, but also from where there are food shortages that will only get worse as climate change continues.”

FOOD PRODUCTION

On why there isn’t a bigger focus on food production as a cause of climate change: “We haven’t publicized the impact it has on greenhouse gas emissions. I think people naturally understand... air pollution, so they can make the connection between air pollution and greenhouse gasses. People aren’t as familiar with the impact of cows, of methane. Some of it is just lack of knowledge in the general public... Part of is that food is a very emotional issue, especially here in Milan, right? Food’s important... Food is so close to us... people are more resistant to the idea of government telling us what to eat, what to grow.”

AGRICULTURE POLICY

On farmers: “If you want to make progress in this area you have to take into account the interests of the producers themselves. Farmers work hard... it’s hard work... family farms... they feel they’re always just a step away from losing the farm. Obviously a large portion of agriculture is dominated by agribusiness.”

On how much meat he ate at the White House: “What’s true is I’m not a vegetarian.” And later: “That doesn’t mean we can’t teach [people like me] to have a smaller steak... This also means we’re going to have to find way start producing protein in a more efficient way.”

On how the world will shift in the next few decades: “In Southeast Asia, Asia, Africa, currently meat consumption is so low that the gap between meat consumption there and the U.S. is same as the gap in energy consumption. No matter what, when those countries move into middle income territory we [will see a rise in overall meat consumption].”

FOOD WASTE

On food packaging: “Part of waste has to do with commerce and how things are packaged and how things are sold. I think an area where tech and innovation can make a huge amount of progress is in the equivalent of what happened in manufacturing, where you just have smaller inventories you wait until you need the part you don’t store as much. The same can be done in food.”

TECHNOLOGY

On GMOs and not “cutting-off” the debate for or against the technology: “The debate on GMOs is a very personal one. I let the science determine my attitudes about food production and new technologies... It’s okay for us to be cautious about how we approach these new technologies but I don’t think we can be close-minded to it. The truth is humanity has always engaged in genetic modifications...”

On how to stem the tide of rising emissions: “Emissions from food production and agriculture are still growing significantly... The path to a sustainable food future will require unleashing the creative power of our best scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs backed by private investment and public investment. [We need] better seeds, better storage, crops that grow with less water, crops that grow in harsher climates.”

FOOD CONSUMPTION AND HEALTHCARE

On food, healthcare, and income inequality: “Making sure people have healthy food to eat alleviates a lot of the medical costs we’re seeing increasing in the advanced world. And If we’re able to reduce our health care costs that will in turn... [give us] the ability to further relieve poverty in many parts of the world.”

On the convergence of food, technology, and health care: “In the future you will be diagnosed with diabetes and the doctor will write a prescription for healthy food and insurance pays for that... A huge percentage, maybe 30 percent of overall healthcare increases, is because of obesity-related diseases. This is tens, 100s of billions of dollars that U.S. companies are spending. [Too many] people get sick from preventable diseases.”

On governments regulating nutrition and diets: “We don’t want to create a society in which you can only eat things that are good for you. Once in a while you should be able to eat something just because it tastes good. But I think at least each individual is going to have more information about their own tendencies and be able to optimize what’s best for them. If it doesn’t taste good it’s not a future any of us want, it’s not going to work.

For food maybe more than energy it is more important to attract people with something positive than try to penalize them with something negative. I think the average person isn’t going to be happy if the government is telling them what they’re eating or drinking [is bad for them]... it’s something that’s very personal and intimate... people want joy from their food.”

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