Inside the glitz and glamour of the world expo

Seven hour queues, organic farmers marching past Coca Cola, food videos on dinner plates and a 50 tonne hive – just some of the highlights of Expo Milan 2015.

“The what?” you ask. The Expo hosted 145 nations and has been running since March on a 200 hectare makeshift city – sans Australia which might be why you haven’t heard of it.

The world expo, last hosted by Yeosu, South Korea in 2012, is where countries and nations come together to promote business and tourism.

Remember Expo 88 in Brisbane? That was our take on the event back in 1988 – one of the earliest world expositions.

Feeding egos? 

The theme for Expo Milan was Feeding the planet, energy for life – a theme some pavilions stuck to even with broad interpretations (France thought promoting highly intensive animal farming technology fitted perfectly) whereas others in their quest to be bigger and better ignored it completely, or perhaps they didn’t have anything to say on the topic.

Criticisms that the gross amount of money spent on exhibits would have been better spent on actually feeding the world are fair.

The pavilions cost millions of dollars each (the Expo’s capital expenditure was 1.3 billion euros). Overall the Expo didn’t embrace the level of sustainability that it could afford (although McDonalds did have solar phone charging stations – which didn’t work even when the sun was out).

The Japanese pavilion was reportedly an expensive, sophisticated, multi-media affair promoting its traditional diet as a model that can alleviate hunger and improve global ecology; however I wouldn’t really know – I didn’t wait up to seven hours in line to see it!

If you’re really curious check out the #japanesepavilion on Instagram. The outer wood work was beautiful.

Expo Milan

Expo Milan highlights 

Despite my cynicism two days wasn’t nearly enough to see, taste and experience everything.

It was some of the less spectacular exhibits and pavilions that impressed me the most.

Italy is the birthplace of the Slow Food movement and organisers of the Slow Food pavilion did a great job of communicating in an open, timber building why we should be wary of processed foods and how we have lost so many varieties of grains, fruit and vegetables.

Slow Food Milan Expo

The 8,500 square metre Biodiversity Park housed certified organic, or biologica, manufacturers and producers. It was here we saw eight different types of organic grains we’d never heard of, packaged by a company that specialises in promoting heritage grains.

grains Expo Milan

Large floor to ceiling screens told the evolution of agriculture and spoke of the most well travelled traveller in the world: the domesticated grain seed.

A heartwarming moment was watching hundreds of organic farmers march through Biodiversity Park, past the huge Coca Cola pavilion, to a stage where key members of Italy’s organic farming community were acknowledged and speakers called on Italy’s agriculture minister to take organic farming more seriously.

Expo Milan organic farmers

Milan Expo organic farmers

Milan Expo

If you eat organic pasta and canned tomatoes, chances are you have the farmers represented here (including one that was 108 years old) to thank for them. The majority of organic pasta and tomatoes sold in Australia are imported from Italy.

Through surround audio visuals and clever and dynamic narration, the Israeli pavilion told us that if it wasn’t for the Israelis we wouldn’t have drip irrigation or the Tommy Toe tomato.

For years the organic movement in the UK has been pleading with the world to save bees and recognise the critical role they play in pollination and food production.

The government took the cause to Expo Milan by erecting a massive, architecturally designed, 14m3 aluminium lattice hive complete with 890 LED lights. You could walk inside it and look over the Expo city. Surrounding it was a garden with 44 traditional British plant species.

It was a genuine ode to the bee and amongst all the multi-media extravagance of the Expo, it was a unique experience.

UK pavilion Milan Expo

I really enjoyed the warmth and joy of the Spanish pavilion, which was all about traditional cooking, foods and eating together. The display guided visitors into a dark room with over 1,000 white ceramic dinner plates stuck to the walls to create screens for a video of cooking and eating.

The future of food labeling 

It might not have been the most glamorous or entertaining but Italy’s Coop pavilion was by far one of the most interesting shopping experiences you could have at the Expo.

Coop pavilion Milan Expo

The Coop is one of the most progressive and socially responsible supermarkets around.

Italy’s largest supermarket chain, the Coop was founded in 1967 and was concerned about child labour, genetically modified foods and food miles, long before others thought they were issues, insisting on supply policies that supported ethical and sustainable practices.

Coop pavilion Milan Expo

It set up a multi level supermarket pavilion.

But this was no ordinary supermarket. It was a virtual supermarket of the future where you could buy everything from wine, chips and meat to fruit and vegetables and, by pointing at an item, find out where it came from, its nutritional value, whether it was sustainably grown, with what labour and how far it had to travel to get to the shelf – all communicated via electronic displays above the shelves.

It’s a concept the Coop would love to see happen so that shoppers can know more about the food we buy, rather than rely on labels.

In a pop up city overwhelmed with dazzling video and light shows and grandiose displays, it was refreshing to see a display that was visionary and used technology to help us shop more sustainably.

I loved this artist’s take on the theme Feeding the planet, energy for life – for what would life be like if we didn’t have chilies :-).

Milan Expo

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Kathy Cogo is the founder and editor of Sustainable Shopper. A journalist of 15 years, she's been a senior reporter with the ABC and has managed communications and media for a range of not for profit organisations including Australia's largest organic certifying group, Australian Certified Organic.

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