Every five years, the world convenes an Expo: the 21st-century iteration of the world's fair that has become the planet's third largest international gathering (after the Olympics and Soccer's World Cup). The city of Milan opened the most recent edition this month. For six months, 140 countries, along with dozens of corporations and NGOs, sponsor elaborate pavilions where they offer up their national or organizational gospel on the 2015 Expo theme: "Feeding the planet, energy for life."
I spent some time last month at Milan's Expo lecturing about forestry and climate change. This gave me ample opportunity to wander the 270-acre grounds, with its jumble of newly built bombastic structures: tents, gardens, exhibits and multi-media presentations. Some 20 million people are expected to visit before it closes.
It soon became clear why this particular Expo has been called the most controversial in the event's 150-year history. Mass demonstrations protested the opening, claiming that rather than benefit Italy, only the many corporations sponsoring the Expo would profit. From the inception of world fairs, companies have always exploited these jamborees to promote their products and innovations.
Ostensibly, world fairs are a colossal waste of resources. The $14 billion price tag for building Milan's 2015 exhibition and associated infrastructures is par for the course. Indeed, the 2010 Expo in Shanghai sprawled over five times the area of the Milan site, costing more than twice as much, while reportedly displacing 18,000 families.
When compared to the expenses associated with major international sporting events, one can argue that Expos are a bargain. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil cost that country some $14 billion in stadiums. The London 2012 Olympics were roughly the same, with local tax payers lucky, after the $44 billion spent for the previous games in Beijing or the $51 billion estimated bill for the 2014 Sochi winter games.
The 140-plus countries participating in the Expo are expected to pony up a fair sum as well. Representatives at the United Arab Emirates pavilion proudly spoke of the $60 million price tag for their attractive structure, with its high rippled walls that evoke the narrow, shaded streets of desert towns. This is a "preview" to the $40 billion venture they anticipate for the 2020 Expo to be hosted in Dubai. Kuwait's enormous $30 million Milan building seems unpretentious by comparison. American greeters were quick to explain that their elaborate pavilion was entirely paid for by private donations and did not cost American tax-payers a dime.
So what does the world get from these events? Created in 1928 under an international treaty, the Bureau of International Exhibitions sanctions Expos every five years. At the time, it made perfect sense for the international community to organize such fairs. For instance, the 20 million visitors who attended the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago had no other way to discover the many astonishing advances in light bulbs, electricity, motors and George Ferris' first "Ferris Wheel".
But in this brave new age of the Internet, it is not clear that international exhibitions have begun to address what should be a modest identity crisis. With Apple introducing its smartwatches and Tesla its batteries to the world in real time, Expos have ceased to play a meaningful role in technology diffusion.
Yet, presumably this globalized dynamic can also facilitate sharing information and experiences around a common theme. The world surely needs to get together and do a better job in tackling food security. The UN estimates that 21,000 children die each day of hunger related deaths; Student with Oxfam shirts marched across the Expo main drag with signs reminding visitors that one in nine children was not going to be eating at all that day.
This unpleasant reality is only vaguely germane to the Milan festivities. Countries have an agenda but it surely is not feeding the world. When the Expo theme is addressed, it is frequently a gluttonous celebration of global cuisines. A full-sized McDonalds restaurant built specially for the six month Expo teams with customers, not unlike the 70 million people that eat in its 36,000 restaurants each day. Its meat-dominated menu flies in the face of the important call for reduced beef consumption. This is a critical component of the sustainable food strategies presented at the unassuming UN and Slow Food pavilions.
Yet, even these thoughtful presentations choose not to dig too far below the surface and ask questions about the association between present and future food shortages and global population growth. Heroic efforts will be needed to feed the 3 billion additional people expected to join our planet. No pavilion asks how we might invest in empowering women, contraception availability or other population programs that can attenuate future demand for food, rather than focus solely on increased supply.
There are several countries that offer interesting food production ideas. Albeit somewhat superficially, the Netherlands displays an impressive range of new agricultural innovations; a surround-screen Israeli film shows low-tech "family" drip irrigation systems in Africa and newly developed drought and salt resistant crops flourishing in developing countries around the world. The conscientious visitor can watch monitors showing interesting interviews with researchers at the Gates Foundation or remarkable Japanese robots picking tomatoes or Dutch robots picking peppers. These are the exceptions.
The food security crisis facing so many seemed very far away from the wine tasting and exotic eateries. With ten billion anticipated mouths to feed, it is going to get a whole lot worse. How many lives we could save if the same investment wasn't directed at self-aggrandizing national propaganda -- but actually feeding the planet?