Expo 2015 Milano – Part 2: Sink or swim in a sea of hyper-stimulation

This is part 2 of a post dedicated to my Expo 2015 Milano visit, click here to read part 1.

When people ask me why Colombia so many distinct microclimates and why is it that we can go from heavy coat to swimming pool weather in two hours by car, I always have to pause and reflect. It’s not easy. How to explain why the country can produce such variety of produce and be home to such biodiversity?

That was the challenge countries with their own pavilions had: to explain to the general public how and why their country contributes to food security. Remember, this was a massive exhibition not an enclosed museum. Many visitors were on holidays, dense chunks of text and jargon would not be enough. Having said in part 1 that covering absolutely everything is really not possible because the space and events really exceeded our three-day capacity, this part will focus on the learning experiences that to me, a food security graduate, felt original, approachable and accurate.

Back to the question on Colombian agricultural production, they took a wonderful approach that was the same guiding concept presented by Ecuador. Appropriate. Can you guess what it is? Why not use the specific characteristic responsible for most of it? Altitude! Both countries have area that makes up some of the Andean mountainous chain. Altitudinal variations and a proximity to the equator creates lots of different thermic floors that support our varied agricultural production.

Communicating this to the general public is not easy, especially if they’re unfamiliar with the entire agriculture and food security theme. So how did it work for the visitor?

Colombia, for example, used several different rooms and projections, each one was a specific microclimate and its crop production. Ecuador had a similar approach and used these fascinating holograms.


Let’s briefly go back to the layout of the Expo. The countries not included in the clusters, had their own pavilion. This is a whole different universe. As an example, this is what the Ecuadorian, Colombian, Chinese and Turkish pavilions looked liked from outside. They were architectural feats! You can click on the images to see them better.


To motivate visitors to visit all the pavilions, the Expo organisers created this mock passport. You had to buy it separately (€5) but I really liked it as a way to remember all the countries ‘visited’ each day. Every time I exited a pavilion, I would open my passport and get a stamp. Here are a few photos so you get the idea. Click on the images.


Because Kazakstan will host Expo 2017 Astana, their pavilion in Milan became the centre of attention because as a strategy to attract visitors to their own event, they created an incredible pavilion that ended in a 3-D cinema experience that felt like a mini rollercoaster. Oh! I forgot to say, in between all that I learned that the apple originated in Kazakstan and that they’re the world’s largest producer of wheat. This is the thing I meant to emphasise on hyper stimulation. There was so much technology and design going on, the message (food security and renewable energy) sometimes was lost.

The lines for the ‘top’ pavilions sometimes reached 240 minutes: Japan, Saudi Arabia, Israel come to mind. My favourite pavilion, was Japan. The exterior design was not only beautiful, but the pavilion was full of detail but balance. I never felt overwhelmed. Everything was elegant and interesting. Their pavilion ended in a virtual dinner where we held real chopsticks to eat from dishes behind a screen.

We also really liked the interactive ‘flashcards’ of Azerbaijan. They were massive touch screens that gave bite size stories on important produce of the country. We liked the concept, the design, the length and wording of each card, not too little and not too much. Kept us engaged and we learned something we can recall.

Overall, I enjoyed this Expo. I think it really did raise awareness on Food Security, at least in Milan. For visitors, it was an overwhelming festival of technology that left you with an introductory idea on how some countries contribute to food security. All the feedback and questions are welcomed! Click on the pictures to read the captions.

How does food security happen? Alternative title: deconstructing a bowl of porridge

The first few times I read the definition of food security, even though I could recite it and maybe even come up with convincing examples, I didn’t really understand how food security happens. Reading related articles and visiting farms has been helpful, but what has truly made the difference is thinking about how and why, as an individual, I am food secure. I like to think about this as often as I can. That’s what I’ll do in this post. How does food security happen in my life explained with a bowl of porridge. Hopefully it’ll help you reflect upon how food secure you are and to what extent. It’s really interesting stuff we’ll continue to explore in upcoming weeks. But for now, how does food security happen?

Cuadros vacios

How does food security happen? Let’s fill out these empty blocks, shall we?

What is food security?

The most widely-cited definition is this one: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” (FAO, 2002)

Even though that definition is non-intimidating, I prefer the next one because it’s more specific. It gives me a set of criteria which I can later use to assess situations (FAO, 2008):

Food security exists when the following four conditions are met: a) food is available (i.e. crop growth and harvest); b) food is accessible (i.e. exchange at market); c) food is utilised (i.e. correct preparation and assimilation by the body); and, d) the previous three conditions are stable over time.

Deconstruction of oatmeal

So after reading those definitions my typical reaction used to be: “Okay. Those four criteria have to be met. But how does that actually happen?” Feeling pretty food secure as I ate my breakfast, I asked: How did this bowl of porridge come to be? That’s where the idea for this post came from. Let’s focus on the oats to find an answer.

It all starts with a question, where do the oats in my porridge come from?

Assumptions (things we’ll imagine for the sake of this post):

  • There is only one producer of oats.
  • The farmers who grow the oats also process and sell them directly to the market without any middleman.
  • All trading occurs at a centralised market, that is, consumers don’t visit the farm directly – I don’t fly to Ireland to pick up my oats.

Stage 1: Producing food

Food system 1

Stage 1: Food production – it refers to agriculture and includes crops, forests, livestock and fisheries (Betts et al., 2009).

Somewhere oats have to be grown from soil, water and sunlight – because oat is a cereal that grows above ground. Obvious, right? Is it? Flashback to the results of that survey by the British Nutrition Foundation where a third of the primary school participants thought cheese came from plants and a tenth of the secondary school participants thought tomatoes were grown underground.

Stage 2: Processing food

Food system 2

Stage 2: Food processing and packaging – after harvesting, crops or animal products usually require some form of processing before consumption (Ericksen, 2008).

Although you probably know, it doesn’t hurt to repeat this: oats, as commonly bought in supermarkets, are not the result of just shaking the plant and collecting what comes off. The part of the oat plant we eat in our porridge is a seed within a harder outer layer called ‘hull’, which is attached to the stalks. The process of threshing and hulling is well explained here (with pictures).

After that, depending on how you prefer them, there is still more processing. In our example, groats (oats after the hull is removed) are steamed and flattened. You can see the differences here (yes, with pictures).

Stage 3: Distributing food

Food system 3

Stage 3: Food distribution – it aims to connect producers and consumers but it also strives to allocate food appropriately (MIT, 2014).

Great. So food is ready to eat, sort of. It’s been grown and processed. But there are still steps left before I can enjoy a delicious warm bowl of porridge.

Oats need to make it to a market. What does this entail? Close your eyes and imagine thousands of packages of oats being put into boxes. Multiply these boxes and visualize them going into a container straight to a retailer or market. There is fuel involved to get them to Exeter (where I’m living right now), there is of packaging involved to make sure the oats arrive as the producers in Ireland intended them to and there is unloading and unpacking until an employee finally stocks shelves.

On one sunny, or not so sunny (because England), morning I get up and decide to go grocery shopping. For me to buy oats, I have to have resources. That is a given in this example but lack of resources is a serious cause of food insecurity for millions of people around the world. Particularly because the less income a family earns, the fraction of their earnings spent on food is higher, making them very sensitive to changes in food prices.

Let’s continue for now. Imagine I walk to the supermarket, reach for the oats and buy them. We’re almost there.

Stage 4: Consuming food

Food system 4

Stage 4: Food consumption – adequate use of food, ingestion and nutrient assimilation. A big fear of mine is having a lot of quinoa to eat, but no food or source of heat to cook it!

Every morning as soon as I get up, I take these four ingredients and put them inside a slow cooker so that my porridge is done by the time I’m ready. This seemingly trivial process involves access to energy to power the slow cooker and knowledge to understand how to use these foods to prepare a bowl of creamy oatmeal.

Finally, I use a spoon to scoop this deliciousness into my mouth. My body has no problem digesting the ingredients and absorbing its nutrients. Never to be taken for granted! Serious medical conditions that impede nutrient absorption by the body can cause severe food insecurity even if everything else I just mentioned is met!

I consider myself to be food secure because I think all the circumstances just described will continue to happen regularly during my lifetime. Truth is, nobody is exempt from becoming food insecure! My health is not guaranteed, or is my access to resources – global food production is under pressure.

 Food systems and food security


Food security is an outcome of food systems (FAO, 2002).

The four stages just explained form what is called a food system. As you hopefully understood, food security is an outcome (result or product) of food systems. If you were paying attention, you probably realised that there are many things that interact with each stage of the food system: environmental, social, political and economic drivers affect and are affected by food systems. In upcoming weeks we’ll explore how our changing environment influences food systems and consequently, food security. Great fun!


Betts, R. a., Falloon, P. D., Gornall, J., Kaye, N., Wiltshire, A., & Wheeler, T. R. (2009). Climate change and food security. doi:10.1098/rstb.2005.1745

Ericksen, P. J. (2008). Conceptualizing food systems for global environmental change research. Global Environmental Change, 18(1), 234–245. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2007.09.002

FAO. (2002). Chapter 2. Food security: concepts and measurement. Retrieved April 13, 2015, from http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4671e/y4671e06.htm

MIT. (2014). Inadequate Food Distribution Systems | Mission 2014: Feeding the World. Retrieved April 11, 2015, from http://12.000.scripts.mit.edu/mission2014/problems/inadequate-food-distribution-systems



What is it really like to be a family farmer from a developing country – Part 5

This is the fifth and final instalment about Cristela, the family farmer from Colombia.

ÁD: So in what areas do you want to improve your family farm? Would you like a bigger access to the market or a more complete trade system like the one we just talked about? Continue reading