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China: where worlds and times collide

Pudong — Shanghai

The Chinese stop on our Food Innovation Global Mission was crazy. Literally. I can not think of a better word to describe our journey into the future. Going to to China today means taking a stroll through this new, advancing world, full of contradictions, splendor and miseries.

The perfect example of this new Asian world is Shanghai, an amazing city the size of Delaware state with 37 million people living in one city center. You find a true urban blend that brings together chaotic streets dominated by old and smelly taxis and aggressive taxi drivers with an ultra-technological, impeccably clean metro, and where you can walk the streets at night, even alone, with a sense of security that would make even the most livable cities in Europe jealous. It brings together Pudong, where the most magnificent architecture paints a skyline full of steel and glass in a futuristic way that it seems taken from a turn of the century museum, with the most run-down neighborhoods of the city limits. It joins scenes from a space odyssey where robots serve you in restaurants with wet-markets semi-hidden down winding roads that every type of food you could ever imagine (and also those that you could never). It combines the most extreme and sought-after restaurants with street stalls roasting food over an improvised fire at all times of the day.

Shanghai is Asia in its pure state, but the Western brushstrokes that painted its history are still evident: from the travels of Marco Polo on the Silk Road to the mission of Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit priest sent to China who, by translating many western works into Chinese and vice versa, created the first real cultural bridge with Italy (and thus Europe). Then of course there is still the petite France that was maintained by Paris as a Concession until 1943 and is still today an authentic slice of Europe in the heart of the wild dragon city. The Republique, as one knows, never gives up its majestic character, or its beauties, or its elegance, or, in a single word, its “frenchness,” which in Shanghai is expressed through imported products, certain Parisian style and also the simple fact that, without knowing a single world of Chinese, you can pass a whole morning drinking champagne and eating brioche in the ex Concession, no need to consult Google translate.

Like a huge city of toys, Shanghai amazes and disappoints and in the backgrounds of its sweeping vistas lurk major social problems: a huge inequality between rich and poor, for example, and a deep, uncrossable gap between those living in the shiny wave of the future in the nicest neighborhoods and the people living stopped in time in the barracks of the city limits, where inhabitants work tirelessly without any connection to the rest of the world. And what bout “Food Waste”? In a city where everything is consumed and still the idea of sustainable development that is respectful to the environment and for people is still not understood, something that in Europe is fortunately developing more and more each day. Last but not least there’s a complete lack of gastronomic culture around food intolerances or vegetarian friendly foods. Here meat still reigns supreme and designates status, so much that a guest who dares ask for a vegetarian plate would be considered quite rude.

Fred Youngsh, founder of Rainbow of Hope in a strawberries organic farm in Qingpu [Shanghai] with Simona Grande from Food Innovation Global Mission

But all is not lost for those who consider eating well and healthily an important value, and if they happen to show up they will find hope: hope in the name of the Chinese expats that are bringing to life tech startups and biotech farms at an exponential rate. The Chinese expats are youth that grew up elsewhere, many in the United States, who are now deciding to return to China to do something good for their motherland. It’s paradoxical, but in this process of “brain gain often those who return home are seen as foreigners; partly because of their imperfect accents, but also a bit for their blue-colored passports, and instead of provoking pride and hope (as would happen here in Italy if a capable government were to re-attract the many talented youths who have fled Italy), they are instead looked upon with suspicion and mistrust. These expats are from the likes of Boston, California, or Chicago and come back to China to nurture the new generation with quality foods that embrace a culture of food security, valuing the role of the farmer together with sustainability and history of food, all through thousands of food startups that are generating a true impact on a young sector: farm biotechnology where the quality of a product is an indisputable dogma (never tasted strawberries so good!), where social gardens in schools and programs of food education save millions of kids from rampant obesity.

Anmao Sun, founder of Hunter Gatherer the organic grocery and restaurant based in Shanghai, meets the delegation of the Food Innovation Global Mission FIGM17

As someone says, “it’s true they don’t have Google and questions if they do anyway” but the answer, perhaps, could also come from a reality like WeChat, a not-so-insignificant detail of disruptive China that explodes and expands, while we in the west drown in nostalgia instead of competing and challenging the country that will most likely define the pattern of living in the coming decades.

WeChat is a platform which already has 800 million users and combines the functions of Facebook and Whatsapp to Paypal: you’re dancing at the nightclub and your phone is running out of batteries? With WeChat you can buy disposable battery charger from a machine, or you can also get a fresh squeezed orange juice prepared by a robot on the subway, or order organic fruits and vegetables through your trusted farmer and receive them within three hours, or simply book a taxi. The system is amazing and offers a huge amount of opportunities, but also implies that for those without access, it is a whole world that is eclipsed: either you are “in” or you are definitely and literally “out”.

To experience first-hand what is always and only read and spoken about was incredible, because it gave confirmation that the horizon for opportunity is ever shifting to the East, where a growing genuine market culture sees still room for improvement, and the soil is ripe for change. It’s paradoxical that Xi Jinping presents himself as a new leader of globalization while America has become more protectionist. This also reveals a huge influence of our time: uncertainty — a further challenge in addition to those posed by the need to elevate food to a human level and make it the lingua franca of an emerging global society. China, now we are sure, can be the playing field to address these challenges!




Future Food is an ecosystem of innovators committed to generating a global positive impact by empowering the ever growing community of young entrepreneurs, farmers and food innovators with disruptive ideas, and supporting corps and institutions on their path to open innovation.

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sara roversi

sara roversi

Don’t care to market-care to matter! @ffoodinstitute @foodinpro @youcangroup #FutureFood #Entrepreneurship #Education #SocialImpact #GlobalCitizen #G20YEA #B20

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