President Obama’s Not Vegetarian, But He Still Wants You to Eat More Plants

President Obama's Not Vegetarian, But He Still Wants You to Eat More PlantsAt the Global Food Innovation Summit held in Milan on Tuesday, former President Obama came out swinging for the planet. In an on-stage conversation with former White House chef Sam Kass, the two discussed the (pretty darn big) link between our current food system and greenhouse gas emissions in what seemed to be a nod toward adopting a plant-based diet, even though Obama made it clear he’s not vegetarian.

“People aren’t as familiar with the impact of cows and methane, unless you’re a farmer,” Obama said of the greenhouse gases produced by livestock farming — a number that’s often a point of contention. Some environmentalists point to livestock as responsible for as much as fifty-one percent of greenhouse gas emissions, while the livestock industry says it’s not even half of that.

The former president made the observation that when we can see pollution – that smoke spewing out of factories – it’s easier to understand the problem. That visible cue is not the case with methane produced by farm animals (although you can sure smell it). And he says the conversation around livestock production on the climate isn’t discussed nearly enough. This observation was the premise of the groundbreaking 2014 film, “Cowspiracy” where filmmakers Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn attempted to figure out why environmental nonprofits continue to, quite literally, leave food production off the environmental issues table. (The answers all lead back to corporate pressure on politicians and NGOs).

“Because food is so close to us and part of our families and what we do every single day, people are more resistant to the idea of government or bureaucrats telling us how to eat, what to eat, how to grow,” Obama said, noting that “some of it is that resistance,” pointing to food as the emotional issue it most certainly is.

Much of the issue surrounding our food system falls on the farmers, ranchers, and the corporations they work for, but Obama underscored the importance of consumers in the equation as well. Supporting agricultural systems better for the planet by voting with our dollars is the ultimate cue to corporations to shift the way they do business. We’re already seeing that shift happen with millennials paying more for quality ingredients, cooking at home more often, and taking a greater interest in brand transparency. Brands are stepping up to the plate demanding more humane animal treatment, reformulating products, and investing in cleaner food solutions.

While asserting that he’s “not a vegetarian,” the former president acknowledged the need to curb meat consumption. “We’re also going to need to find ways to produce protein in a more efficient way, and that’s where some of the technology [at the conference] will be really important.”

Technology is becoming the most valued tool in food production. From streamlining the growing process to producing animal products without the need of the animal, these technologies also hold tremendous value for the planet. For instance, lab-grown meat, as futuristic as it sounds, is a significant improvement not just for the animal being spared, but for the greenhouse gas reductions, and lessened pressures on our natural resources.

“Emissions from food production and agriculture are still growing significantly,” Obama said. “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.”

He also noted the glaring issue of unhealthy food, medical costs, and poverty around the world. “Making sure people have healthy food to eat alleviates a lot of the medical costs we’re seeing increasing in the advanced world,” Obama said. “And If we’re able to reduce our health care costs that will in turn [create] the ability to further relieve poverty in many parts of the world.”

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.