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Josette Lewis. New technologies will give more weight to every drop of water

Innovation / -

Josette Lewis

Sensors, big data, and smartphones: all of these will radically change the way food is produced. With scalable solutions for small farmers and huge industrial farms. The demand on resources is becoming too pressing: we have to optimize them.

With latest generation technology, every drop of water or fertilizer will acquire importance. Josette Lewis - Associate Director of the World Food Center at the University of California in Davis – is convinced. An agrarian geneticist, she is also an expert in agricultural development, use of biotechnology in agriculture, and food security… the latter a subject she specialized in when director of the Agriculture Office in USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) during Barack Obama’s first administration. Ms. Lewis spoke at the #sparkthemilancharter, at an event where Laboratorio Expo and Microsoft Italia interacted with 100 young innovators and startuppers to propose concrete solutions on themes related to the Milan Charter.
 
Of all the food innovation aspects you have witnessed, which do you think involves the most groundbreaking technology?
The greatest expectations are concentrating on big data and analytics: this would constitute a huge step forward in production method. These solutions are already employed in the logistic management of the food industry, with applications able to trace every foodstuff in order to guarantee its safety, its respect of requisite standards and a greater efficiency in reducing waste, eliminating it at source. Many people see huge opportunities in applying this kind of big data analytic approach to agricultural production, to study models and trends in order to foresee, optimize and boost efficiency in the agricultural production process.
 
The department which you currently direct is responsible for issues related to sustainable farming and agricultural development in Developing Countries. Can small farmers afford this kind of technology? Are these missions practical in Developing Nations?
Indeed yes. There are various examples of extremely adaptable technologies. For example, already rice farmers in Asia can use the Leaf Color Chart (LCC): this is a sheet of laminated paper with various gradations of green, which farmers place beside their rice plants for comparison, to see whether they should add more fertilizer: if the leaf is pale green, more fertilizer is called for; if it is dark green, no fertilizer in necessary. And the same approach can be applied in a more high-tech manner with infra-red video cameras: the only difference is that this makes it possible to assess a whole field with one measurement, using it on bigger rice fields of the kind we have in the USA. It can even be done at a greater distance, from the air, but the principle remains the same.
 
Today’s subject has the title “Restart food”: what exactly is it that we have to restart? What is the basic problem of the food system?
I think that there are two great engines driving our need for a second era of innovation in the food and agriculture system. The first is the increased pressure on the natural resources which food production is based on. Just think of water scarcity: nothing grows without water, but there is increasing competition for water between urban and industrial usage in many parts of the world, while climate change will make water supplies even more unstable given the increasing unpredictability of rain. This is why we need to be more efficient in our use of natural resources.
 
The second major question is the growing challenge of chronic pathologies associated with diet: if we look at the spread of diabetes across the globe, we see that many low income developing countries are up there with the first five countries in the world for numbers of diabetes sufferers. This disease is no longer a problem for industrialized countries like the United States. The chronic pathologies associated with poor diet have become a global pandemic. And I believe we need help from both technology and human sciences to obtain better results from our food system, in terms of spreading innovation, educating and encouraging healthy food habits and choices, but also methods for producing healthier foods, reducing the problem of fresh food deterioration and improving the nutritional content of food.
 
Which phase of the food chain do you expect to produce the most innovations?
Pretty much all of them. Cultivation methods are certainly changing, we are moving towards a new generation of ICT applications in farming, but also in processing food to make it healthier or in consuming less energy when processing it. A multinational like Nestlé, for example, is developing zero water dairy processing plants for certain parts of the world with severe water shortages. And the consumer too can now interact with the food system, by learning and demanding convenient and healthy alternatives. This is why I believe that innovation will happen at every level, and that both universities and companies are investing heavily in this field.
 
 

Wonderful China. A boundless and modern country, without sacrificing its ancient history

Culture / -

china national day cover
Keren Su, Corbis

To fall in love with this country it’s enough to watch a panda at play, but to fully understand it; don’t just stop with the expected. Certainly China is rice, bamboo, and philosophy, but it is also much more. As a mandala made up of many different colors, this country has been enriched by numerous shades and unusual contrasts. Expo Milano 2015 celebrates the National Day of China today.

Ten, a hundred, a thousand countries in one. This is China. In recent decades the giant of the East has evolved from its ancient history to develop a strong and powerful economy able to compete with the more established Western powers. The progress made in these last few years is evident in the futuristic skylines of Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. The progress combines with an ancient wisdom, made of traditions, spirituality and conservation of nature. Traditional China includes the imposing sacred mountain Emei, a destination for the faithful from all over the country, the Kung Fu School of the Shaolin Masters in Henan province, the Buddhist temples found throughout  the country and the many nature reserves in Sichuan for the pandas,  all give travelers only a vague idea of ​​the vastness of stimuli that the country offers.
 
A world of flavors, from the delicacy of tofu to the intensity of chili
China is immeasurably vast and so is its cuisine which varies from region to region. When it comes to the menu, however, some items can be found in every corner of the country, even in the less touristy areas, and we are not talking about spring rolls or chicken with almonds, as typically offered in Chinese restaurants abroad. The ubiquitous foods at home are chilli, bamboo, tofu, white rice and pork. The Chinese have a very ancient culinary tradition and give food, like many other populations, important cultural value. Other famous dishes are the roast duck in Beijing, the famous shellfish of Shanghai, the hot pot of Cengdu (for strong stomachs), and many other delicacies that fill up the street stalls, such as the mountains of dim sum and skewers of spicy fish.
 
Thousands of orange carnations welcome visitors in front of the Chinese Pavilion
China participates in the Universal Exhibition in Milan with an impressive pavilion of more than 4,500 square meters located on the Decumano.  In the first twenty days   of Expo Milano 2015 the Chinese pavilion was visited by 250,000 people. The very impressive structure overlooks the axis of the Expo site and is connected by a walkway, surrounded by thousands of marigolds, a small and very fragrant orange flower also nicknamed the "Chinese carnation". The route inside the pavilion shows the production of local foods, such as rice, mulberry and tofu, and also China’s world famous silk and tea. Inside Technical advances made by the country in the context of recycling, traceability, grain hybridization and the so-called “Internet of things” used in production and logistics processes related to food are also featured.
 

Middle-Eastern Cuisine: Foods linking Nations, Hummus, Falafel, and More

Culture / -

Falafel e hummus, piatti del dialogo

The food traditions of the area known as the Near and Middle East have many similarities, including the use of particular spices and chick peas, either whole, in a puree, or as flour. This is Mediterranean cooking, and yet, compared to the Western Mediterranean, this tradition has its own feel, with falafel and hummus being among the signature dishes.

Give or take differences due to religious practices, there is much common ground between the food typically found in the countries of the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, from Lebanon to Syria, as well as Jordan, Palestine, and Israel.
 
Spices, chick peas, and pita bread
In the first instance, this is a cuisine where spices, cereals, and legumes, especially chick peas, prevail. Indeed, chick peas originated from the Fertile Crescent, and have been grown for thousands of years in the Mediterranean basin, and in the area that we now call the Middle East. Chick peas play a key role in two of the dishes best-known in the west: falafel and hummus.
 
Falafel are moist patties made of finely-ground chick peas, although other legumes may also be present. Often rolled in sesame seeds, the falafel are then deep-fried in hot oil. Falafel are particularly popular in Jerusalem. Favored by all the communities that live there, falafel are a common street-food, where they are eaten stuffed into a pita bread pocket, with salad, and yogurt sauce. Hummus is a puree of chick peas, blended with tahini, a sesame seed paste, olive oil, lemon, garlic, and finely-ground cumin seeds.
 
Hummus, too, is served with a round flat pita bread that can be sliced open to form a pocket, the etymological origins of which lies in the Balkans and the Greece. Italian pizza is a similar idea, a base upon which to place the rest of one’s meal.
 
Shared foodie delights
How about labneh, a yogurt-based cheese, prepared in the home in, among others, Palestine, Israel, Syria, and Jordan. Then there is Muhammara, a dip made of hot peppers, originating from Aleppo in Syria, with the original peppers having come from the Americas. Having spread throughout the Middle East, muhammara found its way back across the Atlantic, thanks to immigrants.
 
Another well-known street food is shawarma, or doner-kebab, which is meat roasted on a vertical spit, and then served in thin slices, and which is now a familiar sight in much of Europe.
 
Couscous as case-study
Providing a perfect example of a dish that has successfully crossed cultures, couscous was a traditional Berber dish that later spread eastwards. On the island of San Pietro, off the south-west coast of Sardinia, the local variation is called cascà, while in the area around Trapani, on the western tip of Sicily, the name cuscusù is used; in Palestine, the dish is known as maftoul. 
 
Another example of an easterly food migration is shakshuka, a dish of eggs poached in an onion- and tomato-sauce, which seems to have originated in north Africa and is now a breakfast dish in Israel and elsewhere.
 
The present-day common factors of the food of the Middle East
As elsewhere, the cooking of the Middle East reflects its agricultural traditions: these include the cultivation of grains, legumes, and olives. A cuisine based on spices, but which also features floral tones, as evidenced by the use of rosewater, orange-flower water, and jasmine, for example. These are also lands of fruit, fresh and dried, as in the case of almonds, pistachio nuts, and dates, all of which are used in dishes both sweet and savory.
 
Of the many countries linked by a common cuisine, the similarities between that of Palestine and of Israel are particularly striking. Israeli cuisine is typical of a people that underwent a long diaspora, with traces of many cultures in its dishes, these influences ranging from Arabic to Eastern European.
 
Established over time and the outcome of millennia of history, of greatness and suffering, of exiles and returns, the common culinary traditions of the many peoples of the Near and Middle East are so ingrained that, in Jerusalem, a young Jewish woman and her Muslim counterpart would each consider falafel and hummus as typical of their own culture. Maybe one day these people will also share the same territory, which is not only the expression of the three great Abrahamic, or Semitic religions, but also one of the cradles of human civilization.
 

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