GMOs, Climate Change, and Your Food: A Q & A with Sam Kass

A driving force at the forefront of health, nutrition and food consumption in the United States, Sam Kass brings experiences in both the public and private sectors to inform his audiences. White House chef under President Barack Obama for six years, Kass took on several other roles during his White House tenure, including senior White House policy advisor for nutrition and executive director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign.

In this capacity, Kass created one of the most successful branded initiatives to come out of the Obama Administration, and in 2011, Fast Company magazine named Kass to their list of 100 Most Creative People. We were honored to speak with Sam recently about food and agricultural policy under the new administration, as well as his current projects and the future of food. If you’d like to invite Sam to your next event, visit WSB online for more information.

WSB: We know the big role you played in the Obama administration not only as a chef but as a food policy expert. What do you see for the future of food policy under the new administration and do you think there are any specific steps that need to be taken in order for progress to continue to be made?

Sam: Well, I think it’s a real open question about what the Trump administration is going to do around food and agriculture issues. He hasn’t said very much on the topic and his Agriculture Secretary pick doesn’t have a robust history on the issues he will now be responsible for at the USDA. So I think there’s a lot of open questions that remain when it comes to how businesses and groups respond. I think there will be a lot of attempts from Congress to make some big cuts to some of the big nutrition programs, like SNAP, WIC, and school nutrition, so I think there’s going to be a number of pretty messy fights over the next four years. How exactly they will play out is up in the air, but I think there are some pretty high stakes in terms of food policy in the Trump Administration.

WSB: What do you think is the most controversial food or nutrition policy that will be addressed?

Sam: Well, there is going to be a lot of controversy. I think attempts to cut these programs are going to be a really difficult piece of business. Cuts to those programs attack women, children, and the most vulnerable, so you’re going to have some pretty big coalitions from hunger groups, the food industry, and health care groups who all have a big stake. I think the Farm Bill is going to be quite messy as well. And every year, climate change gets worse, and farmers are on the front lines of that. I think there will be a lot of controversy around pressure to support farmers in an increasingly difficult climate to grow food, and doing it in a way that doesn’t feel too overbearing on the regulatory side. So, it’s going to be a complicated area to navigate. I also think technology is starting to move at a pace we haven’t seen before in food, so how the federal government deals with oversight there is going to be pretty interesting and have big implications on the food we eat.

WSB: That issue actually leads into our next question. The discussion of GMO usage has been a major issue; what are your feelings on the movement to label to GMO foods? What do Americans need to know about GMO in their food?

Sam: I think GMOs are a quite a complicated issues. One that actually truth lies in the grey. Do people have a right to know what’s in their food? Absolutely. Do I think GMO are safe to eat? Absolutely. Do I think they are some serious concerns about their impact on the environment? Yes.   Do I think they are going to save us and are the only way we feed everybody? No. Do I think they are an important tool in our tool box in figuring out how to grow more food more efficiently? Yes. So, it’s complicated. I think the gene editing technology is going to really disrupt GMOs as we know it. We now have the ability to express or silence any gene in the plant or animal genome, and do it very quickly with very little cost, and you’re going to see exponentially increasing amount of activity in manipulating the genomes of plants and animals. It’s going to be a very complicated time. The industries have done a terrible job in how they have managed GMOs over the years, and have seen the fallout from that. So it will be interesting to see the vital next phase of these issues in how we navigate to ensure products are safe and that there’s real benefit to the consumer, health, and the environment, and doing it all in a way that is science-based.

WSB: You were a part of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program. What do you think parents and the government need to do in order to ensure the next generation is healthy?

Sam: For parents, I think the first area is really focusing in on cooking more, and making sure that the household environment is setting their family up for success. If you fill your house with bunch of junk food, the likelihood people will eat a bunch of junk food is very high. How we set our kids and family up to succeed with healthy eating is critical. I think the next phase is starting to engage in your child’s school, the city council, the school board, etc., to push for better nutrition at every level. For government, for nonprofit organizations, and the food industry, the focus needs to be on surrounding people with good food and then encouraging them and inspiring them to eat it. That’s what the whole game is about. If it’s too hard to for families to eat healthier, they are simply not going to. That’s why we have to make it fundamentally easier for them to do that.

WSB: You have talked about the effect of climate change on farmers. How do you think that’s going to impact the agricultural world, and what do people need to know?

Sam: There are a couple areas and angles look at this. First of all, food accounts for about 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, second only to energy. And unlike energy, where we have seen a lot of innovation and technological progress, and the curve is starting to bend in terms of emissions, with food the curve is pointed to the sky. In the coming decades, food and agriculture will be the number one cause of greenhouse gas emissions, by far. There’s no way we’re going to solve the issue of climate change unless we tackle it through food. Unlike energy, food can actually contribute to carbon sequestration lapse, where we can take greenhouse gas out of the air and put it back into the soil. So food and agriculture needs to not only be less of a problem, it needs to be part of the solution.

There’s a huge opportunity in terms of food being on the front lines of the climate debate. The volatile weather conditions we’re seeing already are going to make it increasingly difficult to grow food, so adaptation is going to be a huge part of what’s happening with our food system. There’s progress there, but we have a long way to go towards being able to successfully grow food in our changing climate. The other key area where food has tremendous power that has been untapped is in its ability to engage everyday consumers on those issues. People have to eat three times a day, and they care about their food, they’re emotionally attached to their food. When I tell someone that there’s gases in the air and it’s going to have an impact on the temperature, half the people think that sounds good because it’s cold where they live. But when I tell people that because of climate change, our kids and grandkids won’t have access to coffee, chocolate, wine, and shellfish, among other things, people are ready to riot and take to the streets and do everything they can to protect their food and to stop climate change. Because it’s something people can relate to. So I think there’s a huge communication vehicle in food to tell the story of climate change, and get people motivated to take action to improve it, and that’s something we haven’t even begun to tap into.

WSB: You speak a lot about sustainability, and played a role in creating the White House garden. What can Americans do to improve sustainability with regards to our healthy food supply?

Sam: There’s lots of things they can do. The first thing is the more fruits and vegetables we eat, the better we’re doing. That’s the fundamental starting point. The amount of energy it takes to produce fruits and vegetables is far less than the energy it takes to produce beef, or lamb, or pork. There’s a lot of eating lower on the food chain as a big part of it. When you start there, you’re also eating healthier. There’s an alignment between sustainable eating and healthier lifestyles. If I had one thing, that’s what it would be. I’m not preaching vegetarianism, but we do have to eat less meat to encourage sustainability.

WSB: Related, you’re part of Acre Venture Partners, a venture capital fund aimed at investing in sustainable companies. Can you tell us a bit about what is involved and why it is important?

Sam: Acre is a VC fund with a strong mission-driven approach to investing in the transformation of the food system. We are investing in companies that are focused on improving health, sustainability, and transparency in the food system. With a lot of focus on technology and innovation, from agriculture tech, through CPG, and anything in between. We’re seeing really innovative companies at all corners of the food system that will have a significant impact on the future of food. We’re in the beginning of quite a disruptive era, and I’m excited to meet and work with young entrepreneurs. It’s going to be a fascinating time. There’s the bigger incumbent companies who have been around a long time and are really starting to feel pressure, because the next generation has a different set of values around what they eat, and they want to express their beliefs and their politics through their food, and there’s a whole generation of entrepreneurs who are stepping up to fill that void. Data, AI, and a host of technologies are beginning to transform how we produce, process, and consume food. It’s quite an interesting time to see the relationship and conversation between all these young innovators, the bigger players, and how they’re all trying to react and evolve with and against each other. It’s creating a dynamic where there is a lot of change starting to happen.

WSB: Your company Trove has a goal of connecting companies and organizations with the tools that help them achieve sustainability. What are steps businesses should be taking in order to innovate and achieve better sustainability?

Sam: I think that depends on the companies, there is no set of generic answers. It starts with setting out the right questions and identifying the right goals. What is the mission of the company, and are they taking all the steps they can to position the company for long-term profitability as the consumer’s set of expectations evolve? That means looking through the supply chain all the way down to the farmer, and what’s being grown, how it’s being grown, how to leverage their supply chain to have positive impacts on things like water use and soil health. All the way through how things are processed, with food waste being a huge issue. I think there’s an opportunity for leadership here, for many companies who can step up and have a positive impact for their consumers and the planet in a way that’s going to drive a lot of long term value.

WSB: We loved watching your video on the “smart refrigerator.” What do you think the future of the American kitchen will look like?

Sam: I think the future of the kitchen has to be one that’s interconnected, where the kitchen itself is helping people cook food that meets their needs and makes it easier to put dinner on the table. We tell parents they have to cook more for their kids, but we have to make it easier. That’s where technology and innovation in the kitchen can transform how people actually cook and produce food for their families. That’s where we’re headed

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