While the Trump administration was busy postponing yet another meeting on whether to withdraw from the landmark Paris climate agreement on Tuesday, former President Barack Obama gave his first speech outside of the United States since leaving office. And, in sharp contrast to the current administration, Obama did not shy away from talking about climate change — or connecting the dots between climate change and the global food system.
“Our changing climate is already making it more difficult to produce food,” Obama said during his keynote speech at the Seed & Chips summit on global food innovation, held in Milan. “We’ve already seen shrinking yields and spiking food prices that, in some cases, are leading to political instability.”
During his presidency — especially during his second term, in the lead up to and months following the 21st United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris — Obama made climate change a central issue of his administration. He has referred to it as “one of the most urgent challenges of our time,” and attempted to create multiple domestic and international policies aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, from the Clean Power Plan to limits on methane pollution from oil and gas operations, without any assistance from Congress.
The Obama administration also made combating climate change central to the mission of the Department of Agriculture, something that had not been pursued by previous administrations. In 2014, the USDA launched a series of regional climate hubs, aimed at helping coordinate climate information between farmers, extension and land grant universities, and the federal government. And in 2015, the department launched a series of voluntary building blocks meant to incentivize farmers to adopt practices that reduce their carbon footprint — things like cover crops, which help soil store more carbon, or biodigesters, which can turn animal manure into energy.
“There is an added bonus to acting on climate change because our current food system is, in fact, a significant contributor to climate change,” Obama said during his speech in Milan. “Food production is the second-leading driver of greenhouse gas emissions… and if we don’t change course the World Bank predicts that by 2050 agriculture and land use change my account for as much as 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.”
Agriculture accounts for about nine percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, mainly via methane from animal agriculture and nitrous oxide from excess fertilizer. But globally, agriculture’s contribution to climate change is much higher — by some estimates, it accounts for as much as one-third of human-caused emissions.
“Emissions from food production and agriculture are still growing significantly, and with the world’s population expected to reach nine billion by the middle of the century, now is the time for us to act,” 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 public investment and private investment to deploy new innovations in climate-smart agriculture.”
In his speech, Obama mentioned innovations like better seeds or increased reliance on data-driven technology. Using more targeted applications of fertilizer, for instance, can help farmers both spend less on fertilizer and result in fewer nitrous oxide emissions, while crops bred to withstand drought conditions could help farmers maintain consistent yields even in the face of changing precipitation patterns.
Obama also talked about the importance of emphasizing diets that include healthier and more sustainable foods, like plant-based proteins or legumes. Meat has a huge carbon footprint — through methane produced by the animals and the fossil fuels needed to package, ship, and store meat — and it uses huge amounts of water and land. Moreover, fertilizer used to grow the feed for animal agriculture also produces nitrous oxide, and excess fertilizer can make its way into bodies of water, creating potentially toxic algal blooms or oxygen-free dead zones.
Despite taking significant steps to shift U.S. food production to a more sustainable and climate-friendly model, it’s entirely possible that all of Obama’s work could be undone by the Trump administration, which views environmental regulations and climate science with near-unprecedented hostility. Current Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has mocked climate science in the past, and Trump’s proposed “skinny budget” called for deep cuts to the department, including cuts to conservation programs.
Obama did not directly respond to Trump’s potential reversal on a more climate-focused agricultural policy, but he did warn that climate change is not a problem to be ignored.
“There is such a thing as being too late,” Obama said. “When it comes to climate change, the hour is almost upon us.”