20 million visitors are expected to attend the event, Expo Milano 2015, which will take place in the northern Italian city between 1 May and 31 October.
Expo Milano will mark the 65th World’s Fair, or universal exposition, since the first was held in Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park in 1851.
The 142 countries that are signed up to the event will present pavilions showcasing their national cuisine or techniques for producing food, either through traditional farming or technological innovations. A number of companies are supporting the event, whose theme is ‘Feeding the planet - Energy for life’.
Giuseppe Sala, commissioner of the government of Italy for Expo Milano, said: “Part of the people, and some of the companies, are interested in the scientific point of view but a lot of countries and a lot of people are interested in the pleasure that the kitchen and the food give us”.
Feeding the planet
Beyond the ‘pleasure of eating’, the food security theme is considered particularly important among policymakers, especially as the UN Millennium Development Goals are due to expire in 2015. The first of the goals, which were set in 2000, was the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, which the world is expected to fail. Hunger and poor nutrition are also expected to increase as the world’s population grows to a predicted 9.6 billion by 2050.
“Feeding the planet is the greatest challenge of our times,” Herman van Rompuy, the European Council president, said at an event presenting the Expo at the European Parliament. The European Union has signed on as a partner for the event.
“The World Expo 2015 is meant to be a milestone of planetary debate on food and sustainability. It will be a platform for political discussions and policy initiatives,” he added.
Speaking at the same event, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said the exhibition "is not just a show" that that will create jobs for five months. "I believe that [through] debate, solutions will emerge for the world’s problems.”
Learning other ways of producing food
Part of the exhibition's aim is to showcase a wide range of techniques for producing food. This may be especially important in many parts of Africa, where the dryness of the soil can limit productivity.
“One very symbolic example is Israel, because technically speaking they live in a country where the cultivable land is 20% but in the end they are auto-sufficient,” said Sala. “The reason is that they use technology, with the drop by drop water technology” for irrigation.
The Israel example may interest policymakers in Africa, whose arid sub-Saharan region is particularly prone to droughts.
Other stalls at the event are expected to focus on the merits of small-scale, traditional farming and genetic modification.
"Again, one example, we signed an agreement with Slow Food. As you probably know Slow Food supports a traditional view of the agricultural system. They work and they defend the biodiversity. They defend the little farmers. They are strongly connected to the tradition," said Sala.
"At the same time, the Americans will present a pavilion [with] technology - and they are not saying we are in favour of genetic modification."
The EU’s participation in the event may focus on wheat and bread as a “fundamental element of food in EU civilisations”, said David Wilkinson, the European Commission Joint Research Centre’s director of scientific policy.
However, for Europe the focus is not so much on producing enough food as on tackling the large amount of it that is wasted. Roughly one third of global food is discarded, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
"Other countries are working on the consumption and to avoid waste and they are working from the idea that there is not enough food for everybody," said Sala. "The problem is not only related to Africa, or those countries where the agriculture suffers, but also to our countries because it is fundamental for us to use the food resources in the right way."
To Wilkinson “the EU must play a role, even a leading role” in meeting the challenge of how to provide sufficient food, energy and water for a growing world population.
“The Expo is not an event. It’s a process,” Wilkinson said.