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All the facets of sustainability at Expo Milano 2015

Sustainability / -


Sustainability is a concept which is made up of several different but intrinsically connected aspects: the environmental, the social, the economic and the cultural aspects. It is these different faces of the prism that make this concept innovative, thus getting away from the classical antinomy between campaigners for the protection of the environment and those favoring economic development understood merely as a quantitative growth figure.

Sustainable development is a prospect for the economy which posits a lifestyle that satisfies our needs without impoverishing present resources and which offers hope to future generations. On several occasions at Expo Milano 2015, attention was drawn to the fact that food security is dependent on a combination of the protection of the environment and adaptation to climate change, economic development respectful of people, land and traditions and on innovations which open up new opportunities for farmers and food producers. Whichever way one looks at it, then, social and environmental sustainability are pre-requisites to ensuring enough food for everyone, both today and tomorrow.  
Pollution, deforestation, desertification and climate change
Pollution, deforestation, desertification and climate change are serious threats to feeding the world in the future. The global development model has caused such rapid and unlimited intensive exploitation of resources that as a consequence many ecological balances have been upset. Intensive agriculture is the cause of a large proportion of worldwide CO2 emissions. The loss of fertility of the land, the advance of deserts, the drastic depletion of fish stocks in both rivers and oceans and climate change bring humankind face to face with very complex dilemmas. Green areas are currently disappearing at the rate of about 13 million hectares per year. In forty years, marine species have reduced in number by 39 percent, the most widely sold (such as tuna and cod) by 74 percent. More and more scientists are convinced of the risks deriving from climate chaos. All these issues are piling up and casting a shadow on the future of mankind and his food.
The numerous solutions put forward at Expo Milano 2015
All countries were invited to Expo Milano 2015 to have their say on access to food while respecting the environment and the world’s ecological equilibrium, and each company which displayed its products illustrated its industrial policies to ensure that their supply chains are sustainable. What is needed first of all is an agricultural sector which is interested and aware of events and which at the same time can play a vital role in protecting and enhancing the environment and the territory and making it a better place to live. Family-level agriculture, preservation of traditional production methods through local companies and reconversion to ecologically sound practices go hand in hand with research for new materials, recycling to combat waste, new apps and awareness-raising campaigns. If, as the 7,000 meetings held at the Expo site have us understand, sustainability becomes a stimulus to find innovative solutions to develop agriculture in arid zones or on vertical walls, using resources better, combating waste and inequalities, injecting new life into territories and communities, it will also become an essential requisite for the elimination of world hunger and granting respite to a nearly exhausted planet.
Sustainability on the Exhibition Site
An event centering on the issue of Respecting the Planet had necessarily to incorporate these principles into its basic rules. A number of targets have been reached, from the construction sector to the certification of the sustainability of the event, to the outstanding percentage of differentiated trash collection at the Exhibition Site.

The exponential growth of solar energy

Innovation / -

© Ingolf Hatz/cultura/Corbis

The distributed and digital nature of photovoltaic solar energy is going to have profound social and economic effects as its adoption gets wider thanks to exponentially decreasing costs.

Our society is strongly shaped by our energy sources. When we only had human or animal muscle power available, our societies were slave based: if I had a boulder to move, and you refused to do it, my only way to move the boulder consisted in enslaving you and force you to. If you asked a Roman if it were possible to imagine a society without slaves, the answer would have been unavoidably “No”, even to the point where you’d have been labeled a utopian revolutionary for thinking differently.

Evolving energy supply
The adoption of wind and hydro energy sources in the middle ages, then carbon, oil, and gas during the industrial revolution profoundly transformed the way we live, and we organize our societies. Food availability increased radically, transportation, and the infrastructure of roads enabled commerce across increasing distances adding value to both buyers and sellers of goods globally.
Previous energy sources and production mechanisms were not digital. This might sound evident as such, but with solar photovoltaic installations we are now transforming the world of energy, triggering the next revolution that will change the world as fundamentally as the previous ones. The efficiency of photovoltaic solar panels is increasing and the cost per unit of power is decreasing exponentially. Similarly to Moore’s Law in the field of electronics—which dictates how the density of components of our computers increases doubling every 18 months as their cost decreases halving during the same time—in the field of solar energy Swanson’s Law shows a similar rate of change. The price per watt of panels fell dramatically $76.67 per watt in 1977 to $0.36 per watt in 2014, and it is not stopping, but continues to follow this exponential rate of decrease.

Widespread social and economic consequences
As an illustration of the disruptive power of this dynamic, the National Bank of Abu Dhabi published an 80-page report in March 2015 underlining that the additional energy needs of the Middle East, as far as they were financed by them, would be satisfied through renewable energy sources, chiefly solar photovoltaics, and that already the latest bids saw solutions that were competitive with oil at $10 per barrel, without any additional subsidies supporting solar.
Apple, the worlds smartest company as recognized by the stock market and measured by its capitalization, in February 2015 announced that it would invest $850 million in a solar farm that would generate the energy to power all its stores and data centers in California. Hopefully the shareholders of many public companies will pressure their boards and management to follow in the footsteps of Apple, now that their public and financially meaningful endorsement of solar photovoltaic plants gives an imprimatur of future-proof investment to the entire sector.

Energy use in food production must become sustainable
In his TEDx talk “Eliminating fossil fuel use by 2030” from September 2014, Alex Lightman outlines a clear path to assuring that food production eliminates fossil fuel use within the next fifteen years, and becomes sustainable. Today agriculture absorbs a lot of energy not only through the use of machinery running on gasoline, but also because of the industrial processes that are employed to produce fertilizers. Our capacity to feed the world depends on the output of our agriculture per area occupied, and today it is not sustainable.

Fossil fuels fundamentally contribute to green house gas emissions and determine climate change, and eliminating their use from the production of food is an important goal. By using solar energy and innovative processes to produce fertilizers at scale sustainably, we are paving the way to render agriculture fully sustainable, as it must become, if we want to be able to keep producing the high quality food for those in the high-income countries, as well as to extend their availability to those in low- and middle-income countries.
Solar energy is fundamentally distributed, as opposed to traditional, centralized installations of carbon, oil and gas. Also, it is possible to create installations of any size, proportional to the energy needs, and the financial availability locally, making returns on investment much easier to manage, and eliminating barriers to entry to the use of the technology.
The shape of society through the massive adoption of solar energy will fundamentally change. If Romans believed that slavery was an axiom of society everywhere and at any time, and they were wrong, we can start asking ourselves what are the assumptions about society that we believe to be true but future generations will laugh about condescendingly, marveling at our limited imagination and lack of vision.

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.

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