Food and society

Barack Obama discusses the environment, with a nod to young people

The presence of former American President Barack Obama at the Global Food Innovation Summit in Milan brought the spotlight back to food, two years after EXPO

Barack Obama’s arrival in Milan for a speech at the Seeds&Chips Global Food Innovation Summit was a surprise: his participation was announced just a few days before the week which the Lombard city has entirely dedicated to food, the environment and sustainable agriculture. Two years after EXPO 2015, the former President of the United States, who up to that point had only made one public appearance since the end of his term, chose the global debate around food and nutrition for his first true address. By doing so, he’s brought the topic back to the front-page headlines and highlighted the urgent need for radical change in current production and consumption practices, not just for environmental factors but also in order to reach public health objectives.

Barack Obama’s greatest strength, when speaking on stage, is that of providing a holistic vision of the problems he’s trying to combat. And once again he didn’t disappoint, discussing food and its close connection to pressing current issues such as climate change, pollution, current conflicts and immigration, once again demonstrating the charisma, irony and ability to speak to crowds that were distinctive characteristics of his time in office.

Future generations for change

The opening of the event was entrusted to a ‘Teenovator’, an Italian-American teenager who embodies a generation of young innovators called upon to bring their vision and their ideas to the stage of Seeds&Chips. This was precisely the core audience Barack Obama addressed in his motivational address at the event.

Climate change affects all nations, rich or poor alike, and all men, powerful or not. It impacts the entire human race and thus should be faced by everyone, together, getting ahead of its negative consequences through actions which limit its effects and which help the environment and human beings adapt to what is happening today and what will happen in the future. “Climate change is a radically important factor because it is closely connected to food safety, price volatility and, as a consequence, political instability”, Barack Obama stated. This domino effect is the precursor to the conflicts and migrant flows of today and tomorrow. Managing climate change is an obligatory step to solving these problems.

Barack Obama repeatedly stated that he has faith in younger generations and he stressed the importance of investing in education to nurture new leaders able to lead the world towards radical change. Youths are the motor of this change and the key actors in innovation, the concept which the former president placed at the centre of the entire event. Shaping the political leaders and activists of the future will also be the mission of his foundation in the coming years.

The "Michelle Method" for healthy lifestyles

Barack Obama also praised the efforts that his wife, with the Let’s Move project, has poured into encouraging a food culture of sustainable eating habits and lifestyles in the USA, where problems linked to poor nutrition, such as obesity, eat up 30% of healthcare expenditures. The secret to her method? “Approaching the issue as a parent, instead of a policy maker. Thinking like a mother who carefully chooses how to feed her children”, the former President reaffirmed. Food, added Barack Obama, drawing inspiration from his visit to da Vinci’s Last Supper, has immense social, emotional and cultural value. “This value and this wealth should be taught, as they make food an important issue for each of us”, he explained.

Approaching the issue as a parent, instead of a policy maker. Thinking like a mother who carefully chooses how to feed her children

Teaching about food for global activism

Barack Obama tackled the world of food from every angle, responding to questions from kids and talking about food waste, GMOs and digitalisation. He celebrated the importance of the web: “Without the internet, I never would have been elected”, but he also posited that today’s challenge is reaching young people on the channels they use, making sure that messages spread quickly, efficiently and in a way which stimulates activism among the public

Barack Obama’s resounding call to action aims to change the habits of individuals through climate-smart eating: “intelligent” food consumption which takes climate change into account, integrating environmental and nutritional aspects. After all, only the sum of single virtuous behaviours carried out by individuals can bring about such a profound and radical transformation of our food system.

Alessio Mennecozzi and Marta Antonelli, the BCFN Foundation


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