This week President Obama gave a wide-ranging speech on food and agriculture in Milan at Seeds and Chips: The Global Food Innovation Summit. I was fortunate enough to receive a ticket to attend, and I was extraordinarily lucky to have the opportunity to meet him briefly beforehand.

Before I became an Italian farmer, I worked for six years in Washington, D.C., for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Organic Farming Research Foundation. Both organizations advocate on behalf of farmers to advance organic and sustainable agriculture policy at the federal level.

During his time as President, Obama did not focus specifically on food and agriculture. First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move Initiative to improve health and address diet-related problems. The work included an important recognition of the role of farming in healthy diets, but otherwise agriculture was not a top priority for the White House.

Obama’s speech in Milan this week was his first speech featuring food and agriculture as the main themes. It was the first time that the world got insight into his thoughts about food and agriculture and how these sectors relate to issues of climate change, inequality, technology, culture, and health.

It was refreshing to hear him engage with the complexities around food, climate, and technology and not just put out sound bites.

Here are the five points that stuck with me:

1. People aren’t familiar with the impact of food production on climate change.

Obama opened his speech talking about climate change and about the scientific consensus around human-induced climate change. He ran through some of the best-case and worst-case scenarios, and said that there is such a thing as just being too late.

Scenarios modeling the impact of climate change generally are quite grim, and for agriculture completely de-stabilizing. As a farmer, my biggest long-term concern is how to continue to produce food in the face of climate change.

Obama noted that agriculture is a significant contributor to climate change, but that people are not familiar with the impact of food production on climate change. Some of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions in food production include methane from intensive beef production, and carbon from transport of food and from the creation of chemical inputs.

As we try to find viable solutions to a changing climate, the agricultural sector must transform into a net sink of greenhouse gas emissions, rather than a net emitter.

“If we seize the future, there is nothing that we cannot do.”

Never one to give up hope, Obama did say that, “If we seize the future, there is nothing that we cannot do.” Although he did point out that there is such a thing as being too late, and that we are dangerously close to that point on climate change.

2. There is a healthy tension between resource extraction, the need to produce food, and the ability of farmers to make a living.

As we struggle to address climate change and the role of agriculture in climate change, there can be a tendency to blame agriculture for climate change.

Obama recognized that there can also be a tendency to tell farmers what to do without engaging in what might actually work for them, their business, and food production.

I appreciated this recognition because what might be ideal solution for addressing climate change may not necessarily be the right solution for farmers or for people generally.

This is where it gets messy. People need to eat to survive. By its very nature, food production is an extractive activity. To produce food, farmers harvest nutrients – in the form of crops – from the land. To be able to continue to produce food, farmers must be able to make a living from food production.

Solutions for agriculture to climate change, therefore, must involve continuing to produce food (so we can’t just stop farming). And they must recognize that farming is a business that won’t survive if costs are too high (so we can’t just require farmers to adopt solutions that are too costly).

One of the solutions presented was “climate smart” agriculture. In most circles, “climate smart” agriculture refers to the adoption of resource-conserving technologies to adapt to climate change (e.g., technologies to use water more efficiently in an increasingly drier climate).

The next step in the conversation is to acknowledge the role that certain types of agricultural systems have in both helping to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Agricultural production based on sustainability and resilience, I believe, can be a key part in how we continue to produce food in an increasingly changing climate and uncertain future.

3. There are real social costs to the adoption of technology and innovation.

Technology has its limits.

obama talks about food and agriculture in milanObama has often been painted as a technocrat and not an ideologue – i.e., as a President who seeks technical solutions informed by research and science to complex social and economic problems.

And so it was astounding to hear him say – particularly at an innovation and technology conference – that what he worries about most is the nature of work in an increasingly technological world.

In his remarks, he was implicitly asking a question that is rarely asked anymore: What is the appropriate level and application of technological innovations?

Technology, he said, can eliminate entire sectors of the economy. He gave the example of driverless cars, and that it is likely that they will soon become more widely available. But there are millions of people who make their living from driving cars. What will happen to those people? Will they find jobs? And what kind of jobs?

These questions get to a key part of sustainability, and the one least talked about: social sustainability.

In agriculture, the social dimension sustainability has to do with the role of people in producing food. For agriculture to be socially sustainable, it must support the wellbeing of people involved in agriculture and improve the quality of their livelihood.

Nowadays, social sustainability is often in direct conflict with economic sustainability.

Farming, like many other sectors, becomes more efficient through the adoption of technology. Investments in technology improve profitability usually by replacing labor, which often has high costs. With technology, fewer people are needed for the same level of productivity.

Fewer people needed, fewer jobs available, less wealth earned in a community.

4. The issue of inequality is absolutely critical.

Less wealth earned in a community becomes one of the many indicators of the growing economic inequality in this world.

Obama talked about the importance of paying attention to increasing inequality resulting from the adoption of technologies, innovation, and globalization. He noted that people will feel left behind if the issue of inequality is not addressed.

The danger is that we present technological solutions to very real problems but without considering the human dimension and the impact on livelihoods of those solutions.

While these comments were not specific to food and agriculture, they were intricately tied to how agriculture deals with climate change because technology is presented as a key part of the solution.

The danger is that we present technological solutions to very real problems but without considering the human dimension and the impact on livelihoods of those solutions.

In broad strokes, Obama pointed to the real consequences of technological advancement and growing inequality in terms of the European refugee crisis and poverty throughout the world.

5. In case food isn’t complicated enough, it is also an emotional issue.

In case producing food in a changing climate and with growing inequality were not complex enough, Obama noted that food is an emotional issue and is part of everyone’s everyday.

I really appreciated this.

In discussions about innovation, climate, and global issues, food is often treated as a commodity that is easily exchanged and easily understood.

But food is complicated because it is carries with it history, culture, tradition, and emotion. A failure to acknowledge this will result in the failure of whatever solution is proposed (case in point: GMOs).

(RELATED: Why We Grow Rice.)

For My Fellow Advocates

In the post-speech discussion, the moderator, Sam Kass, asked Obama what he thought effective advocacy looked like.

Obama’s response: The squeaky wheel may get the grease at first. Politicians respond to those squeaky wheels.

But the biggest mistake that advocates make is the failure to engage in the work of coming up with the solutions. Advocates need to do their homework and have concrete solutions, and be willing to compromise.

He also talked about the importance of shaping public opinion and harnessing the tools of the internet and social media to do so.

All in All, an Extraordinary Speech

As someone who worked in D.C. on these issues, I found the speech and the subsequent discussion led by Sam Kass impressive. The range of topics addressed, and his recognition of the how agriculture and food production are intricately tied to many other challenges we face, were a big deal. Most of the speech would have been difficult for him to give as President because many of his points were politically provocative.

As someone who farms, I appreciated the recognition of complexity around these issues and the dearth of simple and quick solutions. It was refreshing to hear a world leader speak intelligently about how agriculture is connected to difficult challenges, and not shy away from discussing those complexities.

From my perspective, the next step in these discussions is to talk about how sustainable agricultural systems, along with organic production, can provide real solutions.

It was, all in all, an extraordinary speech, and I am so happy to have been able to attend.

— Ariane

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