Former President Barack Obama made headlines for seemingly coming out of nowhere and into Milan for this week’s Seeds and Chips Conference, an annual event that focuses on innovations in order to improve and modernize the global food supply. Speaking with his former White House nutrition advisor, Sam Kass, the former president focused on the role agriculture has in contributing to climate change.
The discussion was notable, as policy decisions over agriculture are usually swept under the rug. After all, in many countries across the world, from Japan to India to France, as well as here in the U.S., farming has long been central to a nation’s psyche – and therefore, policy makers generally go out of their way to appease farmers. Of course, Obama no longer has to balance different constituencies’ demands. During his brief speech and talk with Kass on Wednesday, Obama noted that agriculture is the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions after energy.
Of course, that statistic varies depending on what data are consulted: many scientists insist the global meat industry is a larger contributor to greenhouse gas emissions than the world’s entire transport sector; the EPA ranks agriculture as fourth behind electricity, transport and industry; and other experts have estimated that worldwide, farming contributes one-third of all emissions. But no matter how those numbers are crunched, the fact is that farming’s impact on the global environment cannot be denied.
Much of the argument lies in basic physics. When you transform woodsy and rich in biodiversity into farms that generally grows one crop (i.e. monoculture), you are preventing more carbon dioxide from being sequestered and eventually released as oxygen. And as you plow more land, while transforming carbon sinks such as peatlands into acreage devoted to commodities including palm oil, the effects are obvious — more global warming pollution. Meanwhile, the world is trapped into a vicious circle in which the population is surging, the climate is changing, more food is needed, yet it has become more difficult for farmers to grow food (and citizens to buy it) – witness the declining yields and stubbornly high prices of recent years.
Whether Obama is the person to lead this discussion of sustainable agriculture is an open question. His wife is known more for talking about healthful food choices and agriculture (or technically, gardening) than her husband. And when it comes to policy, the 44th president has provoked plenty of critics, from his choice of Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary to the most recent farm bill. Critics say that latest five-year plan promised to overhaul farm subsidies for those who really did not need them – only to disguise those funds as crop insurance subsidies. The overall assessment of the former president’s legacy on agriculture is at best mixed.
But others have pointed out that the Obama Administration did attempt to reform agriculture policy, a Herculean task considering the industry has powerful backers on both sides of the aisle. Vilsack’s embrace of voluntary measures to increase carbon sequestration and reduce emissions over a 10-year period was one step. Talk about those 10 “building blocks,” however, has not been much more than banter – along with the USDA’s chatter about its other sustainable agriculture programs.
Nevertheless, overlooking agriculture’s links to climate change is hardly unique to the U.S. As Obama mentioned in Milan, the Paris Agreement negotiated in 2015 focused more on energy, with almost no mention of the food and agriculture sector’s contribution to the globe’s mounting risks stemming from rising emissions. Much of the problem lies in changing dietary habits, as a growing global middle class craves, and can now afford, sources of protein such as meat. So considering the change of regimes in Washington, could things ever change?
The most marginal political analyst can explain in a heartbeat how Donald Trump has been hell-bent on reversing any and all of his predecessor’s policies. But as Obama pointed out, the private sector can still lead on climate change mitigation, and most likely will. The same trends could certainly apply to agriculture, as technology and private sector investment has already changed how crops are grown from the Midwest to California’s San Joaquin Valley.
Water technologies such as drip irrigation developed by companies including Netafim and Grundfos have already helped reduced agriculture’s water footprint. Food technology start-ups, boasting a roster only beginning with Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, have been leaders with their work on developing meat alternatives that leave consumers excited, not full of dread. To ensure that farmers’ products actually do not spoil and actually make it to supermarkets, firms like Hazel Technologies have developed little packaging inserts that ward off fungi and molds. Then there are the attempts to ward off emissions at their source. Mootral of Switzerland, for example, says it has a feed supplement that can reduce carbon emissions from cows as much as 30 percent.
And they are just a few of the companies that have the potential of reducing the agriculture and food sector’s global footprint. Having a powerful advocate such as the former president would be a huge step forward for these firms and sustainable agriculture – and help Obama build a legacy as the world keeps trying to figure out how to feed the 9 billion people who will be living here by 2050.
Image credit: Senator Debbie Stabenow/Flickr