Act now to ensure food security in the face of climate change, Obama tells entrepreneurs
The 44th President of the United States (POTUS) was speaking at Seeds & Chips Global Food Innovation Summit in Milan, Italy, in one of his first public appearances since his second term of office came to an end in January.
Citing human achievements from the green revolution to the elimination of smallpox through vaccines, he was upbeat that humans can rise to the challenge and mitigate the effects of climate change before it is too late.
"I do not believe that any part of the world has to be condemned to perpetual poverty and hunger, and I do not believe that this planet is condemned to ever-rising temperatures," he said. "I believe these are problems that were caused by men, and they can be solved by men."
A grim reality
Despite this optimism, the former POTUS painted a stark picture of the climate crisis and the very real threat it poses to global stability. Ninety-nine percent of scientists who study climate say it is indisputable that the world is getting warmer.
The only controversy is how much warmer it will get. At the extreme end of predictions, rising sea levels risk displacing huge portions of the population who live beside oceans, and changes to rain patterns will mean hundreds of millions can no longer feed themselves, because they already exist at subsistence levels.
The implication is that we can anticipate impaired food security, since the changing climate makes it harder to produce food. But there will also be an increase in conflicts as a consequence of scarcity, and an unprecedented number of refugees.
"It is almost certain that we will have some disruption. The key is keeping those disruptions at the lower level of estimates so we can adapt to them. If the oceans go up three feet and temperatures go up a degree or two then we can manage."
Reasons to be cheerful
Much of Obama's optimism was based on advances made during his own two terms in office, such as technological developments in clean energy which, if not able to solve greenhouse gas emissions, can buy us 20-30 years. Moreover, the COP21 agreement put in place for the architecture for each country progressively to do more to reduce carbon emissions, from year to year -- even if the standards it set were not high enough to completely solve the problem.
"Nobody can sit on the sidelines," he said.
And while politicians can help guide policies, the energy comes from what people do every day.
In an apparent dig at the American electorate, he said: "People have a tendency to blame politicians when things don't work. But as I always tell people, 'You get the politicians you deserve'. You vote for them."
Notably the current Trump administration has not made climate a priority. But the good news is that the private sector has already taken the decision that the future is green energy. No company on Earth should want to waste energy, because energy costs money. So if they can find ways to be more energy efficient, that will be reflected in their profits.
Yet while progress has been made over energy efficiency, to date there has been less attention to the impact of the food sector on climate change. There is a continuing increase in emissions from the agricultural sector, largely due to changing diets and the increase in meat consumption, but many people remain unaware of it.
While this represents an on-going threat, it is also a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs, businesses, scientists and thought leaders in the food sector.
What needs to happen?
The key to bringing change in the agriculture sector is considering the interests of producers, not just the environment, Obama said.
If you show small and medium scale farms new technologies that will enable them to be more efficient, they will adopt them. Many small farmers are in a precarious situation and feel they are always one step away from losing the farm. But if policy appears to put the environment before their economic interests, there will be resistance -- and in most countries the agricultural lobby is strong and operates across party lines to protect its interests.
In terms of what new technologies are required, rising meat consumption means there is a need to produce protein more efficiently.
Moreover, genetic modification can be helpful for mitigating the effects of climate on production, Obama said. Humans have always engaged in modifying the genes of food crops, through breeding to produce better, more resilient crops. While he could see where the distrust has come from -- notably with the history of data manipulation by the tobacco industry -- he worried that the conversation has been cut off, which could prevent humans from realising the benefits without harmful consequences.
But what about changing what we eat?
The key here is educating people about the link between food and climate. Obama said that former First Lady Michelle's approach, with her 'Let's Move' campaign to reduce childhood obesity, was education and information provision rather than dictating. She came at the problem as a parent rather than a policy maker, and realised that food is "cultural and social glue" -- you don't always want to eat good food, you want pleasure too.
Reducing waste, too, is part of the solution. That means buying fresh food wherever possible rather than stockpiling food and failing to use it all before it goes off. But since convenience is a factor for many time-pressed consumers, there is an onus on the food industry to make food that can be prepared quickly, but that is also healthier and more sustainable.
Finally, Obama said that tackling the issue of inequality between and within countries is absolutely critical.
If we do not pay attention to inequality and technology and globalisation continues, there will be a backlash all across the world because people will feel left behind, he said.
"People will feel they don't have control over their lives, they will resist. You have to have enough to eat before you worry about what will happen to the world 30 years from now.
"Unless inequalities are dealt with we will see disruptions through political systems if people cannot access wonders of this new world."