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The vertical farm. Self-production redefines the relationship between urban living and agricultural life

Sustainability / -

IDA vertical farm immag
© Liang Sen_Xinhua Press_Corbis.jpg

In 2050 urban centers will be inhabited by 80 percent of the world’s population. Demand for food to cover the needs of 9 billion people cannot be sustained if cities continue to grow. Redefining the relationship between urban living and agricultural life is the solution to feed our Planet.

The book, The Vertical Farm, published in 2011 by Professor Dickson Despommier of Columbia University in New York introduces the concept of vertical farming. These so-called vertical farms are hubs of self-produced food that in urban epicenters trigger a mechanism of socio-economic benefit to local governments and consumers. In Chicago there is The Plant, a former abattoir for processing pork converted into a production center with educational projects for nutritional education managed with a committed team of young people who produce and sell quality organic food.
Keywords? Saving, recycling, reuse
Saving, recycling, reuse are the keywords. Both for urban greenhouses built from scratch and those that are part of redevelopment programs, with processing plants that are completely self-sufficient. The functioning of the structure and the LED lighting needed for growing plants is exclusively solar-powered; while the decision to produce food in culturing pods, set in blocks of inert material (expanded clay, perlite), allows a saving of over 90 percent in water. Food produced in a controlled atmosphere, without the use of pesticides, goes to market strictly within 24 hours of harvesting, while waste is used for producing of natural fertilizers. Technological innovation and sophistication in building these temples of food have in some cases managed to undermine public skepticism which has become fond of traditional food production.
High costs hinder efficiency
While the spread of vertical farming is a persuasive response to malnutrition, on the other hand, the high costs of such a technologically advanced structure are not sustainable by the governments of the poorest countries, thus calling into question the efficiency of fighting hunger in the world. Besides the success of Milan’s Skyland of Enea prototype for Expo 2015, the vertical farm of Linkoping (Sweden) in the Plantagon Greenhouse and Sky Greens of Singapore is also down to its cultural environment wher consumers are drawn to this as a solution for rediscovering the relationship between production and urban reality.
Animals fed through the vertical farm
The interest in the vertical cultivation leads to an interesting phenomenon from a point of view of urban design: food production returns to the heart of urban planning, reviving the consolidated symbiosis of town and country. This is why the consumer is careful about checking the origin of food and is more inclined to make judgments on its taste and quality, as well as developing a sense of choice that is socially sustainable. Paignton Zoo in England is one of the cases where the sensitivity to these issues has led to the construction of a vertical farm for the nourishment of the animals in the park.
The food produced in the vertical farm is more palatable and produced in controlled environments without agents and contaminants that are harmful to humans and the environment. The confirmed energy contribution of these foods by nutritionists will perhaps lead to a productive revolution, which even if not clear-cut, will at least limit the food insecurity that in this century is affecting our society.

Slovakia. A breath of fresh air while strolling through charming little medieval towns

Culture / -

national day slovacchia cover
© Jon Hicks, Corbis

There’s something for everyone in this buzzing eastern European country. There are plenty of protected parks for those who want to fill up on nature, ultra-modern ski resorts perched amid the mountains which are ideal for winter sports fans and evocative medieval castles, ideal for a relaxing cultural weekend trip.

Slovakia is a young country which is full of life and resources and is becoming increasingly aware of the wealth of offers it has for tourists, whatever their interests and their budget. For nature lovers, there are nine National Parks, fourteen Protected Landscapes, nature reserves, national natural monuments of outstanding value, a number of thermal baths, cutting-edge ski resorts such as Ruzomberok - Malino Brdo and the enchanting old wooden churches in the Carpathian Mountains, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2008, together with Spiš Castle, the largest fortified complex in Central Europe, dating back to the Middle Ages.
Not to be missed, in addition to the fascinating Bratislava and Košice, European Capital of Culture in 2013, are the evocative old towns and settlements scattered around the country such as the village of Vlkolínec, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Renaissance town of Zvolen.
Delicious and incredibly tempting cuisine on offer in Slovakia
Milk, potatoes and cabbage. While some think these three products which are typically found all the year round, are its sole ingredients, Slovakian cooking turns out a whole host of delicious dishes, made from fresh, nutritious and locally produced goods. The country’s national dish, apart from its ever-popular and inimitable soups, is bryndzové halušky, made of very tasty gnocchi-like potato dumplings served with little squares of fried bacon in a sauce of really special ewes’ milk salted cottage cheese called bryndza, now included in Slow Food’s Arca della Terra list of traditional world products worth preserving.
Delicious as snacks are lángoš, a sort of fried miniature pizzas of Hungarian origin, spiced up with garlic and cheese. There are countless types of bread and famous cheeses in different areas of the country, and Slovakian pastries are also worthy of note; the most outstanding are the bábovka, a sort of ring-shaped soft and fragrant panettone, and Skalický trdelník, a sweet pastry made by wrapping pastry round a cylinder, then topping it with icing sugar and chopped walnuts and almonds, which has been awarded the coveted European PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status.
Recharging your batteries in the Slovak Pavilion, with a world of nature and art in your pocket
The world in your pocket. This is the Theme chosen by Slovakia, which is taking part in the Milan Universal Exhibition with an unmissable Pavilion, located between Japan and Russia, in the eastern part of the Decumano. The external area was designed as a relaxing area where visitors can recharge themselves and their smartphones, before going inside the structure and discovering all the treasures that Slovakia reveals in terms of innovation, sport, nutrition and art. Here you can admire Artist’s Grimaces by the Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj, a work which expresses a Classic approach in the choice to represent male physicality. The Pavilion, designed by Slovakian architect Karol Kállay, and developing the concept "Slovakia. Recharge yourself!”, aims to show the most genuine spirit of this country, which is rich in natural energy resources, in vitality, culture, traditions and opportunities.

Simonetta Agnello Hornby: Food is a friend that tells family stories

Culture / -

Simonetta Agnello Hornby
© Cosima Scavolini Splash News Corbis

At home they referred to eggplants and sweet peppers as much-loved objects, almost as dear friends rather than mere vegetables. Simonetta Agnello Hornby, writer, lawyer and WE-Women for Expo Ambassador, talks to us about how food has helped her stay close to her roots in Sicily, and why even just the fragrance of bay leaves is enough to transport her back there, wherever she might be.

She went from one island to another, keeping the flavors and traditions of Sicily firmly in her heart. Writer and lawyer, Simonetta Agnello Hornby was born in Palermo, yet has lived in England since 1972 where, for eight years, she was part-time president of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal. She is Ambassador of WE-Women for Expo and, on February 7, took part in one of the discussion tables at The Expo of Ideas, the first stage for the Charter of Milan. Here, she talks about women’s role in the Charter of Milan and how, through food, she has been able to narrate her family history.
What contribution does WE-Women for Expo bring to the Charter of Milan?
Our contribution is to bring to the table not only women, but also gays and transgender people, on the subject of food and what can be done to avoid waste, so that we can live in a better and healthier way. Women account for 42 percent of the workforce in food production, a huge number. We Italians find this hard to comprehend but, in the third world this is the reality. The woman is always seen as the person who knows less, who is less cultured, and who has less access to all the things needed for creating a world without hunger.
What challenges need to be overcome for you to achieve your goal?
I think the biggest difficulty is to be taken seriously. The mother is loved, but she is always the one who is pushed aside, who always says “Yes”, who loves her children and who suffers. This is what I have seen in my work as a children’s lawyer in England. The woman is strong, but at times her strength becomes her weakness, because she succumbs to her husband, her father, her son, because culturally that’s what she’s been used to doing. It’s no longer the time to say "just keep going”. The moment has come to say "enough is enough", and this is for the good of both men and women.
Both your latest memoir, Il pranzo di Mosè, which has been made into a television series in Italy, and your autobiographical novel Un filo d'olio, reveal your love for the family estate in Mosè, near Agrigento in Sicily. It is where your entire family used to stay each year from June to October, set among the Saracen olive trees, in the countryside, an atmosphere of conviviality, all eating together around the table. Can you tell us about your memories of those times at the table, and of the place in general?
I had a very “old life”, as we say in Sicily. I stayed at home, I studied and spent the summer months at our country house, near Agrigento. It was there that we would all get together, my uncles and aunts, my sister, my paternal grandparents. We would eat whatever the land produced. We would cook together, talk about what we would eat, what we were eating and, a short while later, we would already be deciding what to eat the next day. Our lives revolved around food, food as family history. We would cook with my mother and my Aunt Teresa who recounted stories of their mother, my grandmother, Maria. We spoke about eggplants and sweet peppers as much-loved objects, almost as friends rather than mere vegetables. "This eggplant is sick," we would say when one had some dark spots on its skin.
In Il pranzo di Mosè, there are recipes made with "les beaux restes", or leftovers. What does wasting food mean to you, and how were you raised in this respect?
In our house we wasted nothing, and I mean nothing. Not being peasants, but a family of landowners with certain values, we fully embraced the culture of the countryside, where anything could prove useful and nothing gets thrown away. There were never any leftovers at home, they just became that evening’s dinner or lunch the next day. There’s a real art to knowing how to use what’s left over. And it’s an art that’s in my family’s blood. Sometimes we even cook more just to create leftovers, for example cooking extra pasta for lunch so that, in the evening, we can fry the remains and make fried pasta.
In Un filo d’olio you wrote: "For years I wanted to copy down my grandmother Maria’s dessert recipes that she had transcribed into a notebook with numbered pages and an index, just like a real book". Did you rediscover certain foods or ways of cooking that had been forgotten?
Here was a book of recipes, only desserts, from my grandmother Maria. It was really more of an aide-mémoire than a cookbook. From my grandma’s recipes I learned about 'ounces', as this was how measures in some recipes were expressed, not in grams. There were recipes that called for leaf lard, or sugna as it was called, which is no longer really used. I discovered cream of tartar, a type of baking powder that we used religiously, and how to create the colors for pasta reale from spinach.
In the same book you wrote, "Just the fragrance of bay leaves and the rich aroma of lemon zest immediately transports me back to Mosè, wherever I might be". What do those bay leaves mean to you?
Warm water with bay leaves is the best drink I know. Not for the taste, but because of the way it elicits so many memories. When my mother was sick, she sat down and drank this bay leaf infusion. The water was boiled with a couple of bay leaves and a little lemon peel, it was then poured into a teapot and always drunk from a good china teacup, because the water and bay leaf, as my mother would say, "deserve this, because they make us better". We took it for stomach aches, for colds, when someone was sad, and when there was nothing else to take, because it was basically good for everything.
When I went to America at the age of 19, the first time that I spent a year away from home, I thought "What can I bring with me from Sicily?" And the answer was clear: some bay leaves. Because bay leaves are light, keep for a long time, and a little water you can find wherever you go, and, with a little luck, also some lemon. My children also take water with bay leaves. My grandchildren, who don’t speak Italian but eat Sicilian, say to me, "Grandma can you make me some warm water with bay leaves?" And they drink it from coffee cups as a delicacy.

You’ve lived in London for many years, before which you lived in both the United States and Zambia.  Has anything changed in the way you cook, eat and entertain?
I’ve lived abroad for almost 50 years, and I cook Sicilian because I don’t know how to cook in any other way. But I have, in my cooking, introduced a number of things that my friends have taught me, such as using ingredients from Indian cuisine. I don’t know how to cook English food, apart from a few desserts, because English desserts are really good, but I'm a lazy cook, so I usually go back to what I know best.
I entertain as a Sicilian, although I do know how to entertain as the English do, which is totally different. For example, the cutlery is laid in a different way, dishes are presented differently, they eat the sweet before the cheese course, as they do in Russia. What I've learned from living abroad, not from the English, but from life in general, especially from Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the father of gastronomy, is that the guest must be respected in every way. Brillat-Savarin says, for example, that those who make guests wait until the last one has arrived is not worthy of having guests at his house. For me, if a guest arrives late, I go ahead and serve the meal at the appointed time and, when they arrive, I seat them at the table, but we don’t go back and start from the beginning, they have to take whatever is there.
In an interview with Exponet, Shirin Ebadi said that the defense of civil rights improves education and this can lead to an improvement in diet and lifestyle. Do you agree?
Education not only improves the way you eat, it improves the way you see things. Education means knowing things so we are able to relate to the world in a better way. With food, where we are told so many wrong things, or we think they are right only to find out they are wrong, education is critical. We all need educating because we now live in a world where we have lost the concept of seasonality. I recall with horror that I used to give my children fresh orange juice every day, while I, as a child, drank it only for two months of the year, because after that the oranges were gone. A dentist told me that there is a real problem in Britain, because orange juice erodes tooth enamel if you do not not rinse your mouth afterwards with water. Often the wealth that we have leads us to a frightening level of ignorance.

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