MILAN — “I’m enjoying being in my own house. I’ve been fighting with Michelle to get more closet space,” joked Barack Obama when asked about his life far from the White House. The 44th President gave an insight on his current life during his attendance at the Seeds&Chips Global Food Innovation Summit, held at the Rho Fiera Milano fairgrounds.
Obama said what he misses least of his mandate is the sense of isolation due to security concerns. “You live in what’s called the bubble; it is a very nice prison, so you don’t have the freedom of movement,” he said. Apparently, the feeling is not completely gone, though. “Now I’m only captive to selfies, which is almost as bad,” he added with a laugh.
In addition, Obama revealed he’s now working on his third book.
As part of his role as guest of honor at the summit, Obama took part in a 90-minute speech and conversation with Sam Kass, his senior food policy adviser, regarding climate change and the intersections of such issue with the global food system and refugee situation. In the audience were former Italian prime ministers Matteo Renzi and Mario Monti, Italian minister of economic development Carlo Calenda, Milan’s mayor Giuseppe Sala and predecessor Letizia Moratti, who were joined by the 3,000 people attending the conference.
“During the course of my presidency, I made climate change a top priority,” said Obama, explaining how he believes “that of all the challenges that we face, this is the one that will define the contours of the century more dramatically perhaps than many others.” The issue is a big equalizer, as no nation is immune from its impact.
Obama explained how the changing climate is influencing food production, mentioning the shrinking of yields and increase in food crises due to weather variations. On the other side, food production is the second leading driver of greenhouse gas emissions, after energy production.
“Emissions for food production and agriculture are still growing significantly, the world’s population is expected to reach nine billion by half of the century, now is the time for us to act,” he said, mentioning public and private investments, in addition to the work of engineers, entrepreneurs and innovators.
Another reason to take immediate action is represented by the current refugee situation, which is not only caused by conflicts but also by food shortages and the unstable agricultural situation as well. Obama stressed how such flows could get far worse as climate change continues, and pointed to rising ocean levels and a change in monsoon patterns as examples.
Strictly related to food issues, Obama underscored how in the U.S. 40 percent of food is wasted, highlighting how nearly 800 million people worldwide face malnutrition instead. Obesity was another of the issues discussed, as the former president lauded Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program, which had success also thanks to his wife’s “practical perspective” and motherly approach.
The former president explained how healthier nutrition spurs a significant reduction in medical costs, which will enable resources to be diverted into the poorest parts of the world.
According to Barack Obama, many of the solutions to the issues presented can be provided by technology, in addition to the daily actions of people. “I do not believe that this planet is condemned to ever-rising temperatures. I believe these were problems that were caused by man and that can be solved by man,” he noted.
Obama particularly addressed younger generations, which he defined as “more conscious” and said they “give him confidence.” Their increasing involvement in environmental and political issues inspired the next phase of Obama’s social commitment, which includes the creation of an institution that trains the next generation of leading activities.
“The problem is [that] so often young people’s voices aren’t heard and when they want to get involved in issues, they don’t know how and they don’t have the tools,” he explained. “So Matteo [Renzi] and I have been talking about how we can create an effective network of global activists,” he said, adding that the aim is to provide them with tools, networks and funding so that they can pursue their vocation.
Obama explained how such a vision came from his personal experiences and from the moment he realized that a “mark of a good leader is to be able to empower other people.”
Before the speech, Obama privately received the keys of Milan from Sala, who defined the former president as “a man who changed history.”
Earlier today, the 44th U.S. president visited Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” while on Monday evening, the Obama Foundation hosted an exclusive dinner at Ispi, the institute of international politics studies. According to media reports, attendees included chairman and chief executive officer of Tod’s Group Diego Della Valle, Fiat president John Elkann, former chairman of Ferrari and Alitalia president Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, in addition to Renzi and Monti. According to sources, Donatella Versace was also among the expected guests but didn’t attend the dinner.