Madness. Chaos. Urgency. Inspirational. Global. Alarming. Educational. Collaborative. Responsibility. Futuristic. Fun. These are just some of the words that come to mind when reflecting on Expo Milano 2015, which I was fortunate enough to attend in the final week of its six-month run. At Expo, all of these ideas are intertwined, and they revolve around one key theme — a celebration of the world’s food and its importance to our survival.
And it was simultaneously chaotic, and educational, and inspirational, and alarming — for throughout the Expo were numerous messages about the many challenges and inequities of our current global food system. I found myself running from the train to the main gate early in the morning with thousands of others just as Expo opened — and constantly jostling with more than 200,000 global citizens for several hours to try and take everything in over the course of one long, yet energizing, day. And beyond the fun in racing through many Pavilions that focused on highlighting aspects of their national cuisines, a key underying theme from Expo for me is that much collaboration and change needs to occur if we are to successfully feed more than nine billion global citizens by 2050. I found myself comparing my one-day race through the Expo with the global race to sustainably feed the planet. I’m hoping that other Expo attendees looked a bit deeper in this regard as well — for that is one way in which positive change can be sparked.
Expo Milano’s main theme — Feeding the Planet, Energy For Life — was supported by 140 countries as well as the European Union, the UN, and a number of companies and international organizations. All manner of countries participated, from less developed to developed, ranging from Albania, Bahrain, and Egypt to Germany, China, Russia, Italy, and the U.S. Five thematic areas were displayed, including Pavilion Zero (a journey of global food production), The Future Food District (which explored the linkage between technology and food), Children’s Park (an exhibit promoting children’s rights), Biodiversity Park (focusing on the importance of biodiversity in Italy), and Arts & Foods (which explored the link between art and food). Expo also showcased nine “clusters” for countries lacking their own pavilions, including rice, cocoa and chocolate, coffee, spices, cereals and tubers, bio-Mediterranean, Islands, Sea, and Food, and Arid zones.
Expo Milano served as a platform for most of the countries of the world to “show the best of their technology that offers a concrete answer to a vital need: being able to guarantee healthy, safe and sufficient food for everyone, while respecting the Planet and its equilibrium. Said differently, Expo Milano was a global forum to draw attention to the food-water-energy nexus and spur discussion (and collaboration) on how we are going to address the most critical challenge of our time — feeding a global population of more than nine billion (in just 35 years) in a balanced, sustainable manner. It was an exciting exposition for “the exchange of ideas and shared solutions on the theme of food, stimulating each country’s creativity and promoting innovation for a sustainable future.”
Expo also sought to link the problems of nutrition (as evidenced by nutrient deficiency and rapidly rising obesity rates) with the themes of extensive food waste and global resource scarcity. The message: “We need to make conscious political choices, develop sustainable lifestyles, and use the best technology to create a balance between the availability and consumption of resources.” Well said. The idea of “balance” is critical — we need a serious focus on reducing the more than one billion tons of food that are wasted annually, and we need to redirect much of the associated high-quality calories to those lacking proper nutrition. .
As its website shows, Expo Milano was impressive in size — totaling over 1.1 million square meters — and hosting more than 20 million visitors over its duration. Given the crowd during my visit, I can believe it. That crowd prompted me to think of the power of collaboration, which was reinforced by Expo’s message that “cooperation is essential if we are to achieve the goal of ensuring sufficient food and food security throughout the world.” Expo organizers note that successfully feeding the planet will require a focus on innovation, energy conservation, environmental protection, and natural resources among the countries of the world, international organizations (such as NGOs and non-profits), civil society, and businesses (whom I think must play a critical role while transforming their business models to incorporate sustainability principles).
So today, October 31st, the chaos and fun of Expo Milano — a six month global exhibition on the critical issue of feeding the planet — draws to a close. Tomorrow the legacy of Expo begins. Organizers note that the Charter of Milan will be Expo’s “cultural legacy” — “a participatory and shared document that calls on every citizen, association, company, and institution to assume their responsibility in ensuring that future generations can enjoy the right to food.” I raced through Expo Milano with many of those citizens over the course of a day, and I came away reminded of the imperatives of the larger global race to feed nine billion by 2050. Here’s hoping that 20 million innovative, collaborative change agents were created to focus on sustainably feeding the planet.