Expo Milano 2015's scientific chief, Professor Claudia Sorlini, says it's time to focus on naturally occurring crops - and science can help. Before we've exhausted existing opportunities, she says, we should avoid GMOs.
DW: How does science fit into the expo, and how can it help us move from our current industrialized agriculture to a more localized form of farming?
Professor Claudia Sorlini: Science is very important for this universal exposition, because the title is "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life." And it's necessary to develop a scientific proposal in order to face the very important problems related to feeding the planet - food, nutrition, technology for the production of food, so we can face the problem of hunger and obesity.
And we are talking about a global issue here - we're not only talking about under-nutrition or malnutrition in the poorest countries around the world - we are talking about a global issue that affects all of us. How are you going to communicate this?
You try to communicate it by disseminating the results of research to the public, to involve the public in these kinds of problems, to involve them in the discussion, and put them in the position of being able to understand the possibility of improving the condition of health in the world with science and the results of scientific research.
So from your perspective, where are the best options now? Do we continue down a route of genetically modified farming, or do we try to find naturally occurring things?
I think it's important to evaluate the possibility of utilizing the genes that exist in nature, without GMOs, because we can obtain very important results. For example, we can use plants resistant to water-stresses, and cultivating these plants gives satisfactory results, because we can have a good production also with very small water consumption.
Other examples include the traditional technique of breeding: crossing plants and selecting the best results of this crossing, in order to, for example, accumulate micronutrients in these plants - without GMOs.
When you talk about nutrients, which nutrients, minerals and vitamins do we need in order to improve food?
Micronutrients are represented by minerals (in particular, iron, selenium, and iodine) and also vitamins, such as vitamin A, which is very important for the health of mankind, because a lot of people in the world are suffering from a deficiency of vitamin A.
If, then, we need to focus on crops that occur naturally in our environments - existing plants - it would suggest we've stopped mass-producing certain things. Why is that?
I think we stopped producing certain plants because they were not so productive, and we preferred only very productive plants. But it's now necessary to look for plants that are not so productive, but provide a high concentration of these micronutrients, so we can face the severe illnesses in the world.
So you're saying we need to move away from large-scale industrial agriculture to a more localized agriculture?
Yes, and it's important to look for minor, local varieties that are produced regionally, because these plants are adapted to particular climate conditions. We know that climate change and "tropicalization" are arriving also in temperate zones, so it's necessary to screen the varieties selected in warmer countries and to evaluate the possibility of disseminating these varieties in other zones of the planet [as they are affected by climate change].
But we do have a landscape that is very much controlled by certain companies and ideologies, don't we?
So how easy is it going to be for farmers in the poorest countries to stop using seeds they've been buying from a company - say, Monsanto - and then focus on localized farming? And are politicians going to be on board to push this through?
It's very difficult to answer this question, because it is a problem of government policy. Some developing countries have adopted GMOs because they received the seeds from multinationals and they do this because it's apparently an opportunity. But other developing countries refuse to [use GMOs]. I think it's necessary to explain both the opportunity and the risks of adopting GMO seeds, because this signifies the abandonment of local plants that are very important, because the genes contained in them hold useful information for climate change and also for future [genetic] modifications.
And finally… You have been awarded the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy - this was in the context of International Women's Day - and I'd like to know how you feel about the number of women involved in science, and those involved in science at the expo?
I feel that women are interested and they will find at the expo some space, because generally we know women are very important when it is necessary to work in the soil, they are very able to prepare food, they are very able to work in every condition. But it is also important to obtain an improvement of women's empowerment, because all this women's sensibility and their experience and capacity must be in the room when the decisions are made!
Professor Claudia Sorlini heads the scientific committee for Expo Milano 2015. She has been professor of Agricultural Microbiology at the University of Milan since 1990, and president of the PhD school on Molecular Sciences and Plant, Food and Environmental Biotechnology since 2005.