Former President Obama speaks at the Seeds & Chips Food Tech Innovation Summit in Milan, Italy

Lessons From a President

Tips on how to change policy, garner public opinion, and create effective innovation from President Barack Obama

Tips on how to change policy, garner public opinion, and create effective innovation from President Barack Obama

Last week we had the honor of hearing former President Barack Obama speak at the Seeds & Chips Food Tech Innovation Summit in Milan, Italy. He discussed life after presidency, his views about climate change, his plans for the future, and he stressed his confidence in the private sector in the United States, to continue to make inroads in clean energy.

The entire discussion was enriching and meaningful, however his insights, advice and tips from a policymaker’s perspective for food and agricultural startups and companies, is priceless for the people working in the industry. Obama was able to provide wise words from his experience as a community organizer and politician, about how innovative companies can get their voices heard, make their cases and ultimately effectively change our food systems. Here are some of the key takeaways:

1. Educate the public

The public isn’t necessarily aware of all the issues surrounding agriculture, food, and the environment, which is why they are not racing to change their habits, explained Obama. Climate change, for example, wasn’t really understood or mainstream until recently. It took the media, policy sector, and activists time to educate people about these concepts and to initiate change.

The same goes for food, it takes time for people to process these ideas, therefore our jobs as food and ag-tech innovators, activists, journalists, and so on, is to continue to make people aware of what is going on, to educate them, and to include them in the discourse. With clarity and understanding, people become more motivated to make better choices and change their habits.

2. Include the Producers

The concept of including producers in our innovations, was discussed not only by President Obama, but throughout conference. If food and agricultural innovators really want to change our food systems, they need to include the producers of our food in the process. There is no use in creating new technology or introducing new concepts if our producers don’t understand them and have a hard time utilizing them. If we really want to fix our food systems, we need to know what the farmers, producers, consumers and retailers need, what they can utilize and what makes sense to them. Farmers, especially, need to be included in the research and development.

3. Take a Practical Stance

When Sam Kass ( head chef at the White House during the Obama administration) asked Obama why he thinks the “Let’s Move” campaign worked, even changing policy in public schools in the United States, Obama explained that it was because Michelle took a practical approach. She approached the public and the government as a mother who is concerned with feeding her children food that is nutritional, easy, fast and tasty, and that was something that many people could relate to.  Making the problems and  solutions to this problems practical and approachable while empathizing with the needs of the public, will garner effective and long lasting change.

4. Make the Message Positive

“I think in the area of food in particular, maybe more than energy, it is important to attract people with something positive rather than try to penalize them with something negative…”  Barack Obama’s point here speaks volumes to an industry that is trying to disrupt the food system. Coined as the “irrational bias,” studies show that people are more likely to choose something when it’s framed positively. Therefore, innovators should highlight how choosing their product will make a positive impact on their lives, their communities and the environment.

5. Make your Voice Heard, but Learn How to Listen

When Obama was asked how activists and businesses can get their voice heard, Obama responded using his experience as a community activist. He explained that t’s important that you get your message out, spread the word and make some noise to grab policy maker’s attentions, however when you do, you should be ready to listen. Activism takes some compromise and it takes time to fully implement what you want, but you must be willing to negotiate your needs and to take steps slowly.

Progress is not always a straight line – Barack Obama

This new wave of food and agriculture is a shift in our perspective about our food, where it comes from and how we will consume it and it will require major change in consumer behavior and habits. This change will not happen overnight and will not always be easy, however, it takes every player in this community to bring about that evolution and define the course of our food systems. What President Obama reminded us, is that whether there are obstacles or hindrances, with hard work and commitment, progress does take place, we just need to have some hope and be open to trying many different methods.


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