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Feeding the Planet: The Milan Expo Puts Food on the Table

Jun. 27, 2015

by Richard McCarthy, Executive Director Slow Food USA

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Expo Milano 2015 is in full swing. This year, the theme is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” From May through October, participants from more than 140 countries will exhibit technological paths toward an adequate and sustainable global food system.

Historically, world expositions have provided a global stage for showcasing social and technological innovations. The 1884 World's Fair – known as the World Cotton Centennial – was held in New Orleans, to feature the history and future of cotton production. A century later, the world's fair returned to New Orleans, with a theme of fresh water. It struggled in the modern age for financial resources and public attention; it is the last world's fair held in the United States. I remember my visit to this exposition vividly. In its footprint, a decade later I helped to establish a farmers market that ushered in the return of farmers markets in the American South.

Do World Expositions matter?

So, what will the 2015 Exposition mean? The Paris exposition of 1889 gave us the Eiffel Tower. The Chicago exposition of 1893 shaped the future of electricity. The 1964 world's fair in New York City had the Belgian waffle. Will the Milan Expo settle the conundrum of feeding the planet? While my hopes are not especially high on this front, it is still worth the visit. If you have never visited a world’s fair, let me explain: It is a giant pedestrian mall populated by whimsical structures built by and reflecting the national character of the participating countries, corporations, the United Nations, and even Slow Food. Visitors experience these often multi-story pavilions via tactile learning, tastings, workshops and lectures. A hybrid of Las Vegas, Disneyland and the United Nations, the Milan Expo is also very Italian. They know how to put on a show. It is engaging and it is also a little bit sinister.

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The exposition poses the question of our time: Who and how to feed a planet of humans who are increasing in number, wasting food, and outstripping the carrying capacity of the environment? I had only enough time to visit a few pavilions, so I did not reach a comprehensive conclusion to this question. However, I marveled at how many pavilions share Slow Food concerns. The fact that the Milan Expo is organized thematically around food is itself a testament to the influence of Slow Food in Italy on the imagination of the general public and decision-makers alike. And yet, this giant pedestrian cityscape did not exist six months ago. Today, it is a paved host to 10,000 visitors a day. Last year it was farmland. How can this be? It sounds like a bad joke. How are we to interpret the Expo’s actions? Who will feed the world? Coca Cola? The other conglomerates that occupy this former farmland? Apparently, it isn't farmers - they are nowhere to be seen.

Sinister or enlightening?

As for the event feeling sinister, I could not help but think of Ursula LeGuin’s seminal novel, The Dispossessed. She describes a world — much like Earth — that is dying. Everyone knows it: the governments and the governed. All have responded with policies to address compromised ecosystems. Consensus around sustainable practices is assured. However, it is not enough. Incremental steps that come five minutes to midnight are helpful but amount to too little, too late. That is the concern among the scientists in the novel. Here on planet Earth, at the Expo, I too got the feeling that the creative and engaging installations communicate a now-widespread recognition that crisis is looming. Is it already here? Ask peasants in the Global South. Ask marginalized neighborhoods locked out of the food economy. We can no longer carry on as we have - and yet we do. The United Kingdom’s pavilion addresses the crisis of bees; the Vatican, poverty; United States, innovation; and Slow Food, biodiversity. Thoughtful exhibits notwithstanding, this glitzy Expo perpetuates business as usual. Men in suits scurry about to cut deals, organize press conferences and bring home the bacon for the corporate and government investments that fuel the gathering.

This is not to say that the Expo is a sham. Rather, in Italian fashion, it is complicated. To be fair, there is relatively little shopping on offer. You can visit the supermarket of the future, Eataly, and what is apparently the largest organic grocery in Italy. Many pavilions feature restaurants, even a Michelin star restaurant in the German pavilion. However, it is not a shopping mall. Or at least not yet. After the Expo closes in November, the footprint may ultimately become a shopping mall (or something for which the economic development decision-makers would approve). But for now, put these long-term thoughts aside. Should Italy be in your travel plans, the Expo is worth the trip. After all, global interaction and learning is almost always a good thing. Unplanned good things will result. They always do.

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Slow Food Pavilion

Each installation was designed by a world-renowned architect. For this reason alone, the Expo does not disappoint. The architecturally curious could spend a week photographing and exploring the spaces. This is even true for the Slow Food Pavilion. It is an assembly of simple wooden structures reminiscent of traditional Italian farm buildings. One houses a theatre, the other a low-tech biodiversity tour of games and such. And the third building that makes the piazza is the cheese and wine bar. In between, there is a garden (of course) featuring companion planting of indigenous crops.

Read about upcoming events at the Slow Food pavilion at Expo Milano.

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American Food 2.0

The United States pavilion, American Food 2.0, is relatively understated. The tallest structure in the Expo, the space is open, informal and provides magnificent views of the entire Expo. On the day I visited American Food 2.0, I spoke with both the architect, James Biber, and pavilion organizer Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation. Davis has spent the last two years raising funds for and conceptualizing the American presence at the Expo. Remember, this is not a federally-funded operation. While there may be considerable State Department cooperation, all funds are raised privately. Outcomes are therefore intriguing. It is without the cumbersome formality of a federal building. It is more of an open breezeway, with a floor made of boards reclaimed from the Coney Island Boardwalk. Nice touch. As the “2.0” name suggests, the overarching theme is America’s devotion to innovation. Characteristically American, there is not a single vision of innovation but a diversity. With private funding comes a mixture of private agendas. As you may suspect, biotech is present, but so are food trucks, vertical and rooftop gardens and public lectures from a wide array of food system voices. I think it is fair to say that the American Food 2.0 accurately reflects America’s pluralism and discord about who will feed the planet: big biotech or small organic farmers? Considering the daunting task at hand — to garner political, logistical and financial support for the project — Davis has created a safe space for the American debate to continue in what will serve as a global town square until the end of October 2015.

See the schedule of upcoming events at the American pavilion.

What's next? Awaiting October in Milan

Will anything come of this opulent and somewhat surreal undertaking? From a Slow Food perspective, we have to be excited that food is center stage. And while our pavilion may not have the glitz of Dubai or South Korea, we are there. We are present to offer a counter weight to the myriad of views presented by the dominant paradigm. Of course, being there is not enough. Already, a mini-media controversy has flared about McDonalds and Slow Food operating in the same neighborhood. And we ARE in the same neighborhood! We are party to this global event. We are also aligned with the forces who cannot enter the Expo grounds.

During the first week of October, the Slow Food Youth Network (SFYN) is organizing a global gathering of young farmers, fishers, bakers, chefs, students, peasants and workers traveling from all over the world to Milan. We Feed the Planet will provide space for those who actually DO feed the planet to learn and share ideas and take action. The gathering will be staged inside and outside the Expo, contain workshops and dancing. This ambitious event needs your help. Young food producers cannot and will not turn to large agrochemical companies to offset travel costs. So, they need you: our nation’s eaters to get young growers to Milan.

Learn more about the Slow Food Youth Network.

Support the crowdfunding effort to bring youth producers to We Feed the Planet.

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