London’s Hyde Park in 1851 must have really been something. Visitors entered a giant structure of steel and glass known as the Crystal Palace, and proceeded to wander for hours in a sea of displays: A fax machine prototype, a gigantic hydraulic press, artifacts from ancient civilisations, and even the world’s largest diamond. It was a golden age of innovation and discovery. The Great Exhibition of London was ground zero.
The event itself was a new invention. It was the world’s first global exposition, conceived to improve links between countries, highlight cultural strengths, and showcase groundbreaking new technologies.
There have been 65 similar events since then, including the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879, and the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880 (for which the Royal Exhibition Building, now a World Heritage site, was constructed).
I was lucky enough to witness the most recent chapter in this long and storied history. The place was Milan, the year was 2015, and the theme was Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.
Unlike past expositions, not just any innovation or artifact would do. Milan was all about solving nutrition problems on a global scale, and it brought 145 countries together for that purpose. Many smaller African and Island nations were represented, including Rwanda, Uganda, Gambia, Guinea,Timor Leste, Kirribati and Papua New Guinea. Some of the most developed nations—Australia, USA, Canada—were notably absent.
Admittedly, I was skeptical about the value of such an event. Was it all for show, an excuse to visit exotic locations and sample fine wines? Would anything really come of it? But the more I talked and listened, the more inspired I became. The innovations on display were astounding—far too many to describe in one post. I did, however, come away with three main points.
1. There are major nutrition issues in the world that can be solved with the right resolve
According to the UN, over 2 billion people are suffering from micronutrient deficiencies. At the same time, over a billion tons of food are wasted every year and more than 500 million people are clinically obese. We live in a world of abundance, yet we have been extraordinarily slow to economize that abundance and take care of the human race.
As it turns out, Belgium is one of the leaders. They highlighted advances in everything from aquaponics to insect harvesting (you’d be amazed at how much protein there is in a locust). There were also companies like Banco Alimentare, who systematically recovered food from the Expo to feed the needy.
2. You don’t have to be big to make a difference
I was amazed to learn that Ireland—a country whose entire population barely exceeds that of Melbourne—is the first in the world to commit to 100% sustainable food exports. Through the Origin Green program, every Irish beverage manufacturer must demonstrate sustainability plans which are subject to independent verification. Meanwhile, beef and dairy farms are audited for quality and sustainability every 18 months.
Add to this the numerous emerging countries who are making serious attempts to improve their lives through innovation and technology, and you begin to realise that despite all the problems, despite the magnitude of the challenge, there is every reason for optimism.
3. It may be as simple as empowering the right people
One of the most powerful messages at the Milan Expo came from Caritas, a small Catholic charity. Quoting Pope Francis, this organisation stressed that if we eliminate discrimination between men and women at a global level, hundreds of thousands of people can avoid the risk of hunger. Women are the world’s main food producers, yet they still don’t have equal access to credit, education, land and basic human services. If this situation were corrected on a global scale, “hunger and poverty would no longer be a sentence passed on from one generation to the next.”
The Quest for True Profitability
When I planned my trip to Milan, I expected to wander amongst beautiful pavilions, meet interesting people, and take inspiration for my commercial work. This did, of course, take place. After all, how can we generate the cash to help others without making a profit? The Expo recognised this, and was replete with new ways to be profitable.
What I didn’t expect was to be so moved by genuine attempts to improve lives through every strand of hospitality. As industry professionals, the need for sustainability and global insight—especially when it comes to the fundamental problem of nutrition—is inseparable from the quest to be profitable. Kofi Annan said it well: “We have to choose between a global market driven only by calculations of short-term profit, and one which has a human face.”
I may not have seen the world’s largest diamond, but what I learned at the 2015 Expo was infinitely more valuable.
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