A mobile vertical farm growing American heirloom fruits and vegetables on eaves undulating like amber waves of grain. The supermarket of the future where robotic arms picked and weighed fruit for customers and price tables displayed the carbon footprint of each product. A mascot named "Foody" parading daily with friends like Fico the Fig and Guaglio the Garlic. Expo Milano 2015 was weird, wacky and serious—and it marked the first time a world’s fair was dedicated to food and nutrition, showcasing technology, innovation, culture, and creativity while focusing on sustainable food security for the projected global population of 9 billion people by 2050.
Universal expositions (“expos”) are considered the "soft power Olympics" because they offer countries and non-governmental organizations a persuasive path to international relations through cultural influence. Based on a theme addressing a pressing global problem affecting the existence of humanity, countries and NGOs are invited to present solutions via cultural programming in a pavilion, usually designed by a renowned architect, for the duration of the fair, thereby influencing millions of visitors from around the world who make the trip. Full disclosure: I was a member of the USA Pavilion team last year, and I learned as much about food during those 184 days as I did in any of the kitchens of any chef or restaurant I’d ever worked for.
But how is last year’s expo relevant to the future of food here in America? For one, many of the solutions on display at Expo are slowly making their way into the supermarkets and onto our plates, allowing Americans to taste the changes for themselves one bite at a time. In Newark, a traditional food desert, the world’s largest indoor vertical farm will supply up to 2 million pounds of baby greens per year through the use of aeroponics, growing plants in an air or mist environment without using any soil. In Wyoming, where ice covers the land for most of the year, another indoor vertical farm aims to grow up to 100,000 pounds of produce per year through hydroponics, where plants grow in water with nutrients. And if you think these are anomalies, think again: food and agricultural start-up investments almost doubled in 2015 to $4.6 billion, with small operations opening up around the country each year continuing the trend.
Vertical farms aren’t the only vestiges of Expo alive in the US. In June, Food Loves Tech showcased many of the technologies of the food future, including meat grown in a lab, urban rooftop agriculture, and yes, vertical farming. (I’ll overlook the fact that the exhibition erroneously billed itself as "the first of its kind innovation expo,” but only because it echoed many of the same themes of sustainability as Expo Milano.) In New York, a group of artists is raising funds for a floating food forest called Swale, which will travel and dock around the Hudson River, growing fruits and vegetables irrigated with water from the river and rains, similar to the Jellyfish Barge that was part of the USA Pavilion’s business accelerator, Feeding the Accelerator. Because technology is so intertwined with every facet of our daily lives, including the massive food production system, food-tech companies now compete for the same venture capital as general tech companies thanks to business accelerators such as Food-X, which gives food-tech start-ups the resources and mentors to grow into profitable ventures while helping solve many of the problems facing food and production today.
Expos are supposed to be a crystal ball for the world’s problems, and I’m glad to see that some of the solutions we presented are now beginning to sprout (pun intended and it stays) around the country. Optimism is infectious and even dangerous, but it’s vital for this thing we call food because, after all, isn’t it necessary for living? And isn’t is a source of joy and comfort for millions of us, whether we’re cooking at home for a family of 2 or 22 or dining at a taco stand or a Michelin-starred restaurant? If, as Wendell Berry says, “eating is an agricultural act,” then cooking is the technological accomplishment of our species, more so than going to the moon. Let’s just make sure that we take care of each other and the planet now and in the future each time we cut vegetables and turn on the stove.