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My search for insects that would feed the world (1)

A couple of months ago, on my way to a workshop in Turin, I found myself passing through Milan. It was the time of the Expo – the Universal Exhibition under the theme of 'Feeding the Planet'. Surely, edible insects would have to play a big role in the future of food? Two billion people eat them already, and the UN recommends that we should all look into this.

Israeli_pavilion.jpgKnowing we were going to launch BUGSfeed soon, I went on a mission at the Expo to finally try some edible insects! Here’s how it went.

First impressions: a huge exhibition space – more than 3 kilometres long; a lot of great-looking pavilions – some really innovative architecture; and it’s always nice to see when the world comes together – yet with an omnipresence of corporate sponsorship: Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestle, Monsanto, you name it… Fiat Cars specifically welcomed the Cubans (!) and Illy presented a number of African and Latin American countries in the ‘Coffee Cluster’. 

Expo Milano is a painfully honest reflection of where we stand 

An article in the business publication Quartz had summed it up like this: "In all its hypocrisy, Expo Milano is a painfully honest reflection of where we stand: yes, there are corporations controlling a food system based on an economic model of unlimited growth, yes, there is exploitation, yes, there are politics. We can be critical passengers on the road to food scarcity, or we can get in the driver’s seat and plough our way back to biodiversity—no matter how arid the land.” 

I was willing to give the Expo the benefit of the doubt, but with sheer endless queues in front of every pavilion, it quickly became a challenge to access any food at all – and finding those edible insects soon looked like mission impossible.


Coffee Cluster. Photos: Ben Kempas for BUGSfeed

I had prepared myself a little – I knew insects were somehow on offer in the Future Food District, in a Supermarket of the Future, and in the Belgian pavilion. It sounded like an easy task but soon became a search for needles in a haystack – carrying my luggage all along on a hot day, as this huge exhibition offered no storage facilities… but I digress.  

Future of Food

An hour or so into my time at the Expo, I had found them. In the Future Food District, tucked away in a simple, small, white container (and notably without a queue to get in) there were some insect products on display.


Edible insects in the Future Food District. Photo: Ben Kempas for BUGSfeed

Seemingly all from the same Thai brand, they were locked away in tins in a glass vitrine – like old exhibits in a natural history museum. Some boards with text on the wall, that was it.

Do you want to engage your audience? Apparently not. Few visitors found their way into this paltry space to begin with – why not offer them a taste?


Getting a taste of insects at Expo? Photo: Ben Kempas for BUGSfeed

I moved on, queued in a long line around the block for the Supermarket of the Future – sponsored by developed jointly with the Coop chain.

Inside, it felt truly futuristic: an immersive, fairly dark space where almost nothing distracts from the food, a great choice of innovative products, a robot serving apples, and some amazing display technology. (I would find it equally amazing if my local Coop looked like this any time soon.)


Supermarket of the Future at Expo Milan. Photo: Ben Kempas for Bugsfeed

The supermarket’s architect and MIT professor, Carlo Ratti, had told De Zeen: "Every product has a precise story to tell. Today, this information reaches the consumer in a fragmented way. But in the near future, we will be able to discover everything there is to know about the apple we are looking at: the tree it grew on, the CO2 it produced, the chemical treatments it received, and its journey to the supermarket shelf.”

It would be amazing if my local Coop looked like this any time soon


The best thing in the Supermarket of the Future: visitors could actually buy everything – just like in an everyday supermarket. So I went and looked for grasshoppers. And found them, neatly presented in sealed bags! But, unlike everything else, they were locked away in a glass vitrine. Sounds familiar?

the_sportsman.jpgWell, at least the presentation looked more attractive this time. The impressive mirror displays provided nutritional information – though the messages alternating on this one took a strangely sexist twist: apparently, those protein-heavy crickets are great for "the sportsman" but also low in calories for "the lady perpetually on diet".

Anyway, I was going to buy those “crispy giant grasshoppers” and started looking for someone with a key to the vitrine. After all, I had been told that I could actually take everything in the Supermarket of the Future to the fancy check-outs. 

Yet a friendly but affirmative member of staff told me I couldn’t buy those insects. “But… why?” I asked. – “They just serve as a sample for innovative packing technology. Keeping things crispy for longer.” – “You can’t get me any…?” – “No.” – “Why not?” – “I don’t know.”


Gender stereotyping at the Expo Milan. Photos: Ben Kempas for BUGSfeed

Frustrated, I left the fancy supermarket without buying anything. (Did I mention the luggage I kept dragging was quite heavy already?) 

Would I ever find anything to eat (well, I mean insects) in a Universal Exhibition on the “Feeding the Planet”? Time on this day trip was running out. 

This moment is what filmmakers like us call a 'cliffhanger'. It means you’ll have to read part two to see if the drama was resolved.

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