MILAN — Fields of waving grain may have come to symbolize the United States' industrialized agriculture, but the U.S. pavilion at Expo 2015 world's fair is seeking to lead the conversation on how to feed 9 billion people by 2050 with a focus on such basics as reviving heirloom seeds, promoting vertical gardens and rediscovering long-forgotten foodstuffs, like cattails.
As befits host Italy, Expo 2015 is focused on food and nutrition. And while many of the 20 million visitors expected during Expo's six-month run will put a priority on the more convivial nature of food by tasting specialties from around the globe, inside the pavilions nations are seeking to raise awareness around such issues as food security, hunger and food waste.
Food, it turns out, is a strong diplomatic tool in its own right.
"When you go around Expo, the beauty is everyone understands what the message is," said Douglas Hickey, commissioner general for the U.S. pavilion. "They may differ on implementation. But they are all using their creative strengths to try to find a solution. I don't know that has ever happened before."
A vertical garden — saving both horizontal space and water — and a small pond with cattails (which a plaque informs were once included in the Native American diet) immediately engage visitors to the open-air U.S. Pavilion, designed by architect James Biber. The steel structure is clad in wood recovered from the Coney Island boardwalk in Brooklyn, New York, responding to the Expo's call that all pavilions be recyclable.
"We are using that not just because it is beautiful timber, but because the boardwalk is a uniquely American interface between entertainment and food and the seaside and public and so on. So it has tremendous meaning for an Expo about food," Biber said.
The feature commanding the most attention by visiting Italian high school students: a digital waterfall that they splashed around in.
It's an easy slope up to the main level, where visitors are greeted by President Barack Obama in a welcome video followed by interactive displays challenging visitors to consider such food security issues as urban food waste and farming inefficiency. Downstairs visitors line up for Foodscape, a walk-through animated presentation of American food traditions and innovations. And regular rooftop talks are scheduled on such topics as how to build sustainable food networks and how to be sensitive to climate change in growing food.
"We are trying to ignite them so that when they leave they really feel that they can do something," Hickey said. "Whether it be small, like just using less waste, or whether it be large, like working for an NGO or becoming a farmer, understanding technology, getting involved in the ag business."
Food security is a topic of growing urgency since the United Nations sounded a warning that feeding the expanding population can't be done by increased production alone, but must be accompanied by other policies. Food security is on the agenda of the Group of Seven meeting in Germany next month.
The Expo venue, which brings together more than 140 nations along with non-governmental organizations and corporations like Coca-Cola and CNH Industrial agricultural machinery, also allows for some informal diplomacy, as national delegations visit one another's pavilions and compare notes, Hickey said.
The U.S. pavilion's notion of being a catalyst in many ways mirrors the Milan Charter, an expert-drafted document that the Italian government is backing with an aim of inspiring individuals to contribute to resolving issues surrounding food and nutrition.
The document, which Expo visitors are invited to sign, is meant to be Expo's legacy, but Hickey said the U.S. pavilion hadn't yet been formally contacted.
"Anything that can be helpful to the goal of feeding 9 billion people we are obviously interested in. We just haven't seen anything so far to really comment on this," Hickey said.
Like most of the national pavilions at Expo, the building is scheduled for demolition after the world's fair, which closes Oct. 31.
"The fact it is going to be removed is a little bit heartbreaking, I have to admit," Biber said.