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What Does Obama Think About Food Tech? Former Chef & Advisor Sam Kass Tells Us

June 1, 2017

Sam Kass has had a varied career, starting out life as a chef, working for the Obamas before Barack’s presidency, later advising President Obama on nutrition policy when they moved into the White House, and launching the Let’s Move! campaign with Michelle Obama. Now, he’s turned his attention to venture capital, leaving Washington D.C for New York City where he is a partner at Acre Venture Partners, a food & agriculture technology investment firm.

We had the chance to catch up with Kass before his speaking slot at the Future Food-Tech conference in New York next week, to find out about this transition, and which technologies he thinks will be transformative to the food system, nutritionally and environmentally.

We also hear about his recent on-stage interview with President Obama in Milan earlier this month.

An abridged version of the interview is transcribed below; listen to the podcast to hear Kass’s thoughts on the nutritional profile of plant-based meats, food safety, tech adoption challenges, and more.

I hope you enjoy our conversation and hope to see you at Future Food-Tech next week! LBT

Louisa B-T: Sam, you are a busy man as I see you popping up at various events all over the world. And you’re actually due to speak at the Future Food Tech here in New York in just a couple of weeks, which looks like it’s going to be fantastic. But you’ve recently got back from Milan in Italy where you were speaking onstage with none other than President Obama, which is of course really exciting because Seeds & Chips, the event you were at, is focused on food and agriculture technology and innovation. I think it was Obama’s first overseas speaking arrangement since he stepped down, so it’s really exciting that he’s engaging with our industry. I would love to hear about your session with him onstage and what you talked about, and how you see him thinking about some of these technologies and innovations.

Sam Kass: It was a really exciting moment, obviously for me personally but I think also for everybody who’s working in improving our food systems. I think it was a really big deal that he stepped out in such a bold way around these issues, and I really encourage people to check out the link and watch his speech and then our Q&A, which was all-in about an hour and a half so we covered a lot of ground.  I think the President really understands that food and agriculture is going to have to be a central part of a solution globally when we come to try and tackle climate change. I think when you hear him talk, you get a deep understanding of both the complexities of the challenges, the reason why governments have been slow to engage with this part of the problem, the hard politics that’s around any kind of countries’ agricultural policies, and also the consumer side; both the power and the challenges of how we can engage consumers in making some of these changes. And then the roles of technology and innovation in solving some of these challenges, and both the huge opportunities and then some of the risks we face there.

I think it was a real watershed moment for our issues, to have somebody of his stature weighing in like he did. I think it’ll help point a lot of energy and attention in a direction that hopefully will produce some really positive outcomes over the long term.

Louisa B-T: Do you see him pursuing this topic further?

Sam Kass: Well, climate change is something that he’s going to be working on I’m sure for the rest of his life. It’s the greatest threat that humanity faces. He’s also spent a lot of his time on healthcare in the States. And obviously food and healthcare are starting to really converge. But I think particularly when it comes to climate change, food and agriculture is 25% of greenhouse gas emissions currently and the trajectory is going in a skyward direction, as opposed to energy, where we’re starting to see the curve bending and coming down.

We’ve invested a lot more resources globally around sustainable energy production, but with emerging middle classes and consumption patterns changing around food and ag. By 2050, food could be the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions, and part of the point that he was making is that, there’s no way we’re gonna solve this problem unless we start addressing what we grow, how we grow it, and what we end up consuming.

That’s I think something that we often miss. It’s not just the production method, but it’s also what we’re actually eating that’s a major opportunity to make some progress. And on the flip side, food and agriculture is going to bear the brunt of the impact of climate. It’s going be increasingly difficult to grow food with water scarcity, soil depletion, and volatile climates and warming climates.

It’s sort of a double-edged sword: our food system is exacerbating the problem, but then it’s also going to be one of the areas that’s hit hardest by climate change. We have to take this issue head on and there’s no question that emerging technology and innovation is going to be absolutely critical for both of those sides of the equation to make progress.

Louisa B-T: It’s really interesting what you were saying about sort of the trends in what consumers are eating and how that plays into climate change. Were you thinking specifically about consumption of meats?

Sam Kass: Yeah, absolutely. Livestock production, particularly beef production, is by far and away the leading contributor within the food and agricultural ecosystem of greenhouse gas emissions. There are definitely improvements that we can make in terms of how we’re raising beef to bring down emissions, but it’s also the amount of beef that we’re eating that’s the problem. Like I always say, and the President says, we both love a good steak and I intend to eat steak for the rest of my life, but we have to eat less of it. It’s just a fact. It’s hard to imagine a sustainable food system where we’re continuing to see beef consumption, and meat consumption in general, at the levels we are now.

Now, there’s some emerging potential solutions that could mitigate that, but it’s I think one of the easiest things we can do is to shift our consumption patterns in a way that are more climate-smart. I think we hear a lot about climate-smart agriculture, but we’re not going to have climate-smart agriculture unless we have climate-smart eating. Farmers aren’t growing food or producing products in a vacuum; they’re producing for people to eat.

I think, as I do go around the world and sit in these high-level conferences and talk to the various parts of the food supply chain, that it is fascinating that this connection and these decisions are not made in a more holistic manner. So you go to talk to a bunch of the ag side. They’re not thinking or talking about food, or eaters. And I think part of what we have to do is shorten the connection between what we grow and what we eat, make that connection more integrated. I think we’ll come up with solutions that are both better for the planet and better for farmers, as well as consumers.

Louisa B-T: I think in the world of technology, food tech and agtech are separated, and we have been thinking about that a lot recently, thinking that we really need to join the dots a bit more. And there are some investors that are looking at it in that more holistic way, such as S2G Ventures; I know they invest from the farm to the fork. Is that similar to Acre Ventures Partners. That’s where you work now after joining early last year, and the sole investor is Campbell’s Soups.

Can you tell us a little bit about their thesis and does that sort of fit in with that holistic view?

Sam Kass: Yeah, absolutely. At Acre, we’re a mission-driven fund that’s focused on changing the food system around health, transparency, and sustainability and climate change. We believe that the companies that are founding businesses to solve the biggest problems that we face in food are going outperform the ones that don’t. We have a pretty interesting model. Campbell’s is our LP, but we are a completely external fund. We’re able to collaborate when it makes sense to support our companies, but we’re independent, looking for the companies that we think are gonna have the biggest impact on the food system.

I just am blown away every day with the amount of innovation we’re seeing, the quality of the companies that are being formed, and the transformational impact of some of the technologies that are being developed. I’m really excited about the future that we’re able to build. And I think what’s powerful is that you have the new creation of the future, which is then in conversation with the established food system. Unlike some technologies, where you invent a better phone and then all of a sudden it’s just a better piece of hardware and technology and everything else becomes obsolete, food’s not gonna work like that. Food is going to take a much slower evolution of change, with step-by-step innovation, and with innovation you’re going to have an evolution of progress.

There’ll be some that celebrate change faster than others, but I think we have to, as investors, understand the complexity of the food system itself, and the sensitivities of consumers. Because in the end, this is about what people are putting into their bodies. It’s about their health. It’s about their families. It’s about their culture, about how people show love. So that’s on the one hand. And then it’s about farmers and their livelihoods, and the environment, and the implications there. There are a lot of components to this system that, bit by bit, as we engage and invest with that holistic view in mind, I think we’re gonna be able to fundamentally have a better system to hand down to our kids.

Louisa B-T: So that adoption and deployment challenge around technology is a big talking point in the food and ag tech spheres. As you mentioned, it’s a lot about a behavior change throughout the supply chain with all players involved, not just the farmers but everyone in the supply chain including consumers. How are you looking at that challenge at Acre Ventures, and how do you think various parties can be incentivized to adopt technologies, which are hopefully going to be providing a more sustainable food future?

Sam Kass: I guess it depends on what part of the system we’re talking about. I think the approaches vary, but I think in the end, just one of the fundamental questions we have to ask ourselves is, who benefits from these tools that are being created? And what are the outcomes? I think if we are designing tools and solutions that help support farmers’ economic liability, improve their margins, reduce their costs, and, for example, help them maintain the quality of their land, it becomes less of a challenging sell.

When you’re producing products that concentrate power in the hands of a couple of big companies, and the farmers are now in some ways disenfranchised from their own livelihood, that’s a problem. On the other hand, I think for consumers, a part of the question they should be asking and that businesses should be developing their technologies around it, is this gonna help consumers live better? Is it going to help them solve their health challenges?

Right now in the United States, for example, there’s 79 million pre-diabetics. 79 million. 1 in 3 of our youngest kids are on track to have diabetes in their lifetime. Obesity alone costs 20% of our entire healthcare expenditure. Food is the number one cause of preventable death and disease in the United States. The number one cause. If we continue to create food products or technological solutions on our phone for various things that aren’t actually helping us solve that problem, I think adoption will be slow.

But if we can find innovative ways to help people live better and eat better, and raise healthy kids, then I think adoption’s is not going to be anywhere near the challenge that some might make. We have to make it simple and easy and accessible for people to make better choices. That’s going to mean changes throughout the entire supply chain, but I guess we just have to keep asking ourselves, who benefits here? We’re working to make sure that we have the right answer to that question in all of our investments.

Louisa B-T: Tell me a little bit about some of the investments in the Acre Ventures portfolio.

Sam Kass: We’ve invested across the board. To what we were just talking about, we really think that if you want to see the change that we need, you’re gonna have to make progress across every point in the supply chain. Just a couple examples on the agriculture side, we invested in Farmers Business Network, which is just an incredible company that’s helping farmers reduce their inputs significantly and increase their yields by using data to help apply any kind of chemicals in a much more efficient way, or reducing them dramatically if when possible, planting the right seed at the right time in the right soil. They’re growing exponentially, largely because they start with the basic premises, how can I help farmers be more successful? And really have learned the needs of farmers and made the applications quite simple.

Louisa B-T: And they’ve got a really interesting business model around helping farmers to reduce the cost of their inputs as well and bring some sort of pricing transparency to when they’re buying their chemicals and their fertilizers. When we think about the adoption challenges, FBN is really incentivizing adoption, aren’t they?

Sam Kass: Absolutely. Well, it’s just when you step back and look at the system, it hasn’t changed in a century and when they analyzed the costs and pricing across the country for the same products, the disparities were just extraordinary. The range across is just extraordinary just because somebody may have had a lock on a particular market. That’s just not fair to farmers.

If we can bring some transparency to that, it’s a pretty clear choice. Am I gonna pay three times the value of this or do I now have access to buy these essential inputs at a market fair price? I think if you can do that well, you bring great benefit and great value to farmers. Those are the kinds of companies that we’re trying to invest in.

Louisa B-T: What investments have you made off the farm?

Sam Kass: We invested in a food safety company Sample 6. I spent a lot of time working on food safety in the White House and you now start to see technologies being developed to really, I think, dramatically improve the system. Right now, a lot of the times people aren’t getting results to their tests between 48 to 72 hours after they’ve sent them in, which means that whatever they were producing is out the door by the time they know if they got a problem.

I think in the next five to ten years, food safety will be turned on its head. Sample 6 both has an incredibly innovative food safety platform, but also a digital platform to help companies, both manufacturers and retailer and distributors, manage their supply chains so they actually can help control for any kind of issues that may occur and actually help whoever is doing the work on the ground make the right decisions.

Louisa B-T: And can we talk about Juicero  — I know you probably didn’t want me to say that — but it’s a juicing machine that has pouches. It’s digital juicing. You receive a pouch and that goes into the machine, and it squeezes you a juice. But there was a recent news piece in Bloomberg that said that the pouches can be squeezed by hand, and so it’s caused a bit of an uproar. What are you guys thinking at your end? As investors in Juicero.

Sam Kass: No problem. Yeah, I think that, look, it’s a company that’s trying to make juice more accessible for people. I think they are working very hard to bring the cost down significantly and they have a line of sight to do that. They already brought the cost down of the machine dramatically and then they have a sight line to bring the entire cost down, which I think is quite exciting. And I think they’re just gonna stay focused on trying to continue to produce a great product that’s valuable to consumers.

I think if they do make it more accessible, that would be a great benefit to anybody that wants to drink juice. The more people are drinking that kind of juice and, say, less sugary beverages, I think the better off we’re gonna be. So they’re just staying focused, trying not to get caught up in all the- You know the media does like to do their thing when it comes to those sort of snarky little rounds of coverage, but I’d say they’re just staying focused on the task at hand.

Louisa B-T: Were you surprised that the packs could be squeezed by hand or did you already know that?

Sam Kass: I had not squeezed a pack by hand. I’m pretty sure that you’re not going to have a lot of people spending their mornings wringing out pouches of vegetables.

Louisa B-T: So I’d love to ask you a little bit about your background. You are a chef originally and obviously you took on some policy advisory in the Obama administration. How has the transition been from those two quite different roles to now being a venture capital investor?

Sam Kass: Well, I’ll tell you the jump from being a chef to running food policy in the White House was a far bigger jump than going from working on how do you improve the food system to then figuring out what are the right areas to invest in and who are the right people to invest with. I think part of what was amazing about that experience is that when you’re actually tasked to solve the problem, you have to look at it holistically, you have to understand all the various components of the system, where the barriers were, the opportunities, and a lot of what we did, the other piece of what I did was I ran the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign.

A lot of that had to do with consumer engagement and marketing promotion, promoting what a better way of eating is. That part I have a pretty deep understanding of. As well as a lot of work with the business community. We negotiated and announced numerous partnerships to help encourage and push and work with companies to make big changes in their supply chain to provide better food. And then there’s the policy side, which obviously you have to have a pretty deep insight on what’s happening to shape good policy, which I think we did at many junctures.

So that understanding serves me quite well in being able to identify here are the areas that I think are the biggest opportunities for progress and these are the kinds of changes, or kinds of innovations, that I think will be most effective. Then you have a pretty good filter to analyze which of the companies in the space you think are gonna do the best job. The jump actually has not felt that large. Coming in as a kid who read a bunch of books on food policy and history of agriculture and that kind of stuff but was a chef, then taking on that kind of responsibility, that was a pretty big leap.

Louisa B-T: Right, and so before we finish off, are there any other technology types and innovation types across the supply chain that are really exciting you at the moment?

Sam Kass: We don’t have time to cover all of them. Yeah, there’s so many. I guess the ones that really stand out for me and for us, I think the gene editing space is probably the most transformational set of technology that I’m seeing, that I think will change everything we eat.

So this isn’t GMOs, this is manipulating the genome of any given plant, expressing or silencing genes that already exist in a plant, or an animal. These tools have the ability to efficiently in a cost-effective way potentially dramatically increase the nutrient density of any given plant. So, more fiber in wheat or more vitamin B, calcium, in broccoli. It has the ability to dramatically reduce the need for water. It has the ability to reduce the need for pesticides or fertilizer.

I think there will be a huge benefit to the consumer if we can figure out how to grow fruits and vegetables more efficiently. I think part of the misnomer out there is that subsidy-skewed junk food make it cheaper than healthier food. The reality is actually corn and soy has gotten hundreds of billions of dollars of research over the last 50 years, and it’s significantly increased the yields of those crops. For fruits and vegetables, we’ve invested almost no money on a relative basis, into growing those crops more efficiently.

Part of what we need to do to improve the diets of the world is figure out how to grow fruits and vegetables at a lower cost. We have the ability I think here to do that and grow more nutrient-dense foods. But there’s some big questions. First of all, people are sensitive to these kinds of issues in their food. Right now in the United States there’s absolutely no regulation. This technology is considered GRAS, meaning Generally Recognized As Safe. That’s a huge problem.

That’s exciting for many in the industry but first of all, something can go wrong with this technology. You can create allergens or toxins in how you manipulate any kind of plant genome. Number one. Now, number two, it’s a very hard sell to a public of very skeptical and somewhat cynical public that worry this is safe.

So I worry about that but I could not be more excited about the potential there, but it’s a conversation we need to start having a lot more about what are the implications of this, how we should be talking about this in the public domain, and what are we gonna be innovating around. That’s one big one. I think the microbiome is something else that we’re looking at deeply and I’m really excited about it. I think the microbiome is gonna transform how we understand health and nutrition when it comes to the human body, and also when it comes to soil. I think there’s some really fascinating emerging work on the biome of soil and that too holds tremendous potential to improving the sustainability of agriculture. I get keep going. I’d say those are my two biggest ones.

Louisa B-T: Thank you very much for touching on GMOs. I was wondering whether it was the right time to be bringing that topic up. We could probably speak about that for another whole day!

Sam Kass: Well, let’s do it again.

Louisa B-T: We’ll do a GMO special. Yeah, but I think that education piece is essential and I think it is being addressed and we hear it talked about at various events. But thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule and I hope to see you at Future Food-Tech in a couple of weeks time.

Sam Kass: I really look forward to it. I’m a huge fan of your work. You put out some of the best stuff there is and so it’s been great to talk.

Image: President Barack Obama talks with Debra Eschmeyer, Executive Director of “Let’s Move!” and former Executive Director of “Let’s Move!” Sam Kass during the fall harvest in the White House Kitchen Garden, Oct. 6, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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