Feature: Milan expo showcases innovations to help solve world food problems

September 22, 2015 7:55 am 

MILAN, Sept. 19 — The idea of growing crops on the walls of buildings or discovering the nutritional value and environmental impact of a food product simply by touching it may sound futuristic — but that is precisely what the future could have in store.

And in the battle to tackle the global hunger problem, let's not forget about those tasty edible bugs.

These are just a few examples from the world's first food-themed exposition currently under way in Milan that countries and organizations have envisioned in handling the enormous challenge of feeding the Earth's growing population, which by the United Nations' estimates could top 9 billion by 2050.

During the six-month event held under the theme of "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life" through Oct. 31, about 150 countries and organizations are not only promoting their dietary cultures and local foods, but also offering insights into problems facing the world and presenting innovative ideas to ensure sustainable food systems.

Shedding light on the paradox of malnutrition and hunger in poor nations and overeating and obesity in rich countries, the "Pavilion Zero" of the United Nations exhibits a mountain of food waste in one room, noting one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, amounting to about 1.3 billion tons per year.

If only 25 percent of the food lost or wasted was recovered, it would be enough to feed all the world's hungry, the pavilion says.

At the Swiss Pavilion, visitors are made aware of the importance of sharing and ethical consumption in today's world where resources are limited by a "simple and strong message," according to Andrea Arcidiacono, head of communication for the facility.

Visitors to its towers filled with boxes of salt, coffee, dried apples and cups for water, are free to take away or consume any amount of the products. How much will be left for later visitors and for how long will be determined by consumer behavior and their levels of awareness, as the products will not be replaced.

Slow Food international association questions the trend of mass production and disposal and presents alternatives to options provided by multinational agro-industrial businesses at its pavilion. The movement originally started in Italy in 1986 to counter fast food. The group supports small-scale farmers to promote food made with respect for the environment.

By allowing visitors to touch and smell various seasonings, herbs and nuts at its facility, it aims to raise awareness of the need to preserve biodiversity.

In an attempt to tackle challenges highlighted by these pavilions, the expo offers a glimpse of future technologies.

In the Future Food District, visitors to a supermarket operated by an Italian co-op can experience futuristic shopping.

When shoppers touch products, interactive digital displays show key information about the items such as their origin, nutrients, the presence of any allergenic ingredients, and the product's "carbon footprint," or the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the food supply chain. In short, smart shopping at your fingertips.

"Every product has a precise story to tell," says Carlo Ratti, who manages the project and is director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Senseable City Lab. "Today this information reaches the consumer in a fragmented way. But in the near future, we will be able to discover everything there is to know."

A booth adjacent to the supermarket presents more futuristic ideas, such as a 3-D printer that can make custom-ordered pasta and ornately packaged edible insects rich in protein.

Eating bugs is "a real, accessible and sustainable answer to reduce world hunger and protect the Earth for the future of new generations," the booth explains.

At a future kitchen utilizing the Internet of Things technology, where objects are linked to transfer data, intelligent displays on the doors of refrigerators show the availability of the food items inside and suggest recipes. Wearing special headgear, visitors can also have virtual reality shopping experiences. In the future, orders that are placed would be delivered by drones.

Israel and other countries like the United States have taken the concept of growing to new heights, which they literally display on the walls of their respective pavilions.

Israel's "vertical field," which features crops such as wheat, corn and rice, is the largest of its type ever constructed, measuring over 836 square meters. Those systems demonstrate how to grow vegetables and herbs efficiently, conserving water and land. Computerized drip irrigation systems are used to optimize growth.

In a similar green drive, the Austrian Pavilion housing a natural forest serves as a "green lung" at the expo, producing enough oxygen in one hour to serve 1,800 visitors while absorbing 92 kilograms of carbon dioxide under the motto "Breathe Austria."

It says the system, which is an open interior space planted with trees and vegetation that creates a microclimate, can be adopted for climate-friendly buildings in the future of green technology.

Belgium displays an aquaponics system linking leafy vegetables with fish tanks that simultaneously grow plants and fish. The fish waste provides an organic food source for growing plants and the plants serve as a natural filter to purify the water.

Compared with conventional soil farming, productivity is high and less energy and labor are required, according to the Belgian Pavilion. It also features a unique project of growing mushrooms with used coffee grounds collected from local restaurants that serve as substratum.

A food truck at the Dutch Pavilion offers a plant-based burger, with a patty made from "kombu" seaweed and roasted soy shreds with its bun containing microalgae. It tastes like chicken and is full of protein. The producer claims the item does not need "costly and scarce agricultural land" or fresh water as seaweed is grown in seas.

Japan, for its part, presents technology to utilize euglena — a microscopic alga capable of photosynthesis — as food and for energy generation, and to farm tuna and eel in closed cycles amid concerns over supply shortage.

Hiroyuki Anzai, a Milan-based Japanese business planner involved in some events related to the expo, said the world fair "asks visitors where to draw a line" as to what to eat in the future, and offers a chance to find common ground among food cultures. (PNA/Kyodo)

SCS/RSM

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