There is a Universal Exposition going on right now. A real World’s Fair. Few around the world seem to know about it. But they should because the theme is crucial to the world’s future: Feeding the Planet. Energy for Life. The world’s population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050, if not before, according to United Nations projections and the UN itself is concerned about sufficient food and water. Enter the Italians, the food experts sine qua non. EXPO 2015, currently being held in Milan, was conceived to delve into the challenge posed a few years ago by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, namely “The Zero Hunger Challenge.”
EXPO 2015 opened May 1 and will run through October 31. The exposition offers an opportunity for countries to showcase what they have to offer in terms of food and drink and how they provide it sustainably. Some 145 countries have a presence including the United States, three international organizations including the United Nations and several representatives of civil society, even a few corporations. The EXPO is as large as the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, if not more so.
From one end to the other the EXPO site is 1.5 kilometers long and the overhead covered thoroughfare, lined with pavilions on both sides, is called by the ancient Latin designation of “decumanus” which was a long road spanning east to west in Roman cities. At one point, namely Piazza Italia, the thoroughfare intersects with the “cardo,” named after the ancient north-south Roman roads, and leads to the location of the Italian Pavilion, an imposing white building, situated near a small lake containing the “Tree of Life.” The latter was inspired by Michelangelo’s star-like design located on the pavement outside Rome’s city hall (Campidoglio). The gigantic geometric tree stands in the middle of the lake. At periodic intervals music starts, fountain jets spurt upwards following the cadence of the melody and flowers emerge slowly from around the tree to the ooohs and aaahs of photo-snapping visitors.
The mascot and symbol of EXPO 2015 is “Foody” – a cheery anthropomorphic composite face assembled from fruits and vegetables and inspired by the paintings of the eccentric Milanese artist of the 16th century, Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The Italian post office has just issued a Foody commemorative stamp. Foody is featured in a float that is part of a daily mini-parade along the decumanus accompanied by dancing fruits and vegetables, concluding with “Josephine the banana,” all accompanied by the happiest music imaginable, to the delight of spectators young and old.
At EXPO food is inextricably bound with nutrition. Indeed, the Italian version of “Feeding the Planet” is “Nutrire il Pianeta.” The 145 countries represented at EXPO 2015 enjoy an opportunity to showcase the global food chain “from farm to fork.” The host country could not be outdone. Not only are there elegant restaurants in the Italian Pavilion, but the Eataly movement has a large presence of its own that features the specialties of all 21 Italian regions. (On my visit I savored an exquisite “vitello tonnato” in the Veneto area, savoring every moment from the spacious terrace on the upper floor overlooking gardens and sculptures below.)
Italy’s role in the food and nutrition world seems to know no bounds, such as the slow food movement that is Italy’s antidote to fast food. Showcased in an open wood building (that will be dismantled and reused in other constructions) the exhibits feature basic foods and grains and their origin and use. The slow food movement has as its symbol a large snail.
Each country pavilion features a restaurant offering national specialties. Even the United States, which in addition to showing off “truck food” so common in big cities like New York and offering everything from hot dogs to waffles, has a (former famous chef) James Beard-inspired restaurant on the top floor terrace of its pavilion.
The important position that the United States occupies in food production, from agribusiness to local farm markets, is featured among the exhibits in the pavilion. In addition, among the few corporate exhibits elsewhere in EXPO that demonstrate their role in the food chain, there is the impressive New Holland Pavilion where the agricultural machinery manufacturer, founded in Pennsylvania, displays incredibly large farm equipment such as combines with wheels that are five-feet high.
Given that not all countries could afford an individual building, smaller and less prosperous countries are grouped together in clusters that represent basic foodstuffs or specific cultivations: cereals and tubers, fruits and legumes, rice, spices, coffee, cocoa and chocolate as well as bio-Mediterranean, islands and arid zones. Cereals and tubers brings together six countries and focuses on explaining over 10,000 varieties of cereals and sing the praises of the lowly potato that provides nourishment to rich and poor alike depending on preparation. Coffee is one of the world’s most popular beverages and its cluster pavilion exhibits the process from growing the beans to brewing the beverage and offers videos portraying the history of coffee and information on the countries that produce it.
Each exhibitor has a “national day” to showcase more than just gastronomy. On July 11, EXPO celebrated Japan Day which featured music, costumed dancers and entertainers who paraded in colorful costumes along the decumanus in 10 groups, each representing 10 traditional Japanese holidays. The Japanese also used the occasion to thank the world for assistance received after the 2011 earthquake and to tell about the subsequent recovery of the area of Tohoku.
“Not by bread alone”
Among the exhibitors is the Holy See which chose the phrase “Not by bread alone. At the Lord’s table with all mankind” as its take on the EXPO theme. Inside the pavilion there is a long banquet table and at the wall opposite the entrance there hangs a painting of the Last Supper by Tintoretto that was brought over from the church of San Trovaso in Venice. The role of the Church in feeding the poor, especially in Africa and Asia, is manifested via continuous videos that provide food for thought about sharing our own bounty with the less fortunate.
Food, nutrition and environment are taken seriously by the EXPO organizers. At the end of each day, left-over food from the eating areas is gathered and brought to a nearby pantry where some of the leading chefs from the various pavilions help to prepare meals that are served to the needy assembled together by Caritas. Nothing goes to waste.
The EXPO site is dotted with small United Nations exhibits – there is no UN pavilion – presenting the work that UN performs via its Rome-based agencies: the World Food program (WFP) which feeds millions of people each year in distressed situations, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) which invests in agriculture in poor areas of the world and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) which monitors food security globally and whose motto happens to be “Fiat Panis.”
The EXPO theme is closely linked to the United Nations’ current deliberations to formulate and adopt a series of “Sustainable Development Goals” based on three pillars: social, economic and environmental. However, the Secretary-General’s “Zero Hunger Challenge” does have a hidden population control agenda. Unlike the UN, the private sector has another perspective. A billion more people represent a billion potential clients. Businesses know they need to be good stewards of the planet’s resources to thrive going forward assuring adequate food and nutrition for the expanding population. Both agribusiness and indigenous farmers contribute to put food on the global table and can co-exist, each feeding particular parts of the world.
Food and water go together. While “experts” at the UN fret about sufficient safe drinking water, scientists are aware that three-fourths of the world is covered with water, have already figured out a process for desalination and are working on scientific advances to make that process more efficient, less costly and more widely available.
Sometime in October Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit EXPO. He will be given the “Carta di Milano” which is a charter of global values and commitments signed by hundreds of government officials from around the world, all pledging to assure food security and respect for the environment. The charter will be part of the legacy of EXPO 2015.
After an intense day of exploring as much as possible of EXPO, a visitor comes away with a positive feeling that many forces are at work to assure that food output will keep pace with population growth. Indeed, the population will be part of the solution as individuals in the private sector see opportunities, conduct research, come up with ideas, embrace creativity, introduce innovations and otherwise employ their ingenuity to provide food and nutrition for people and planet. They were made for each other.
Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist and represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.