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Scientists at State of the Planet Conference Assert that World Hunger Can Be Ended

By Mariellen Gallagher

Scientists speaking at Columbia expressed optimism that the technical means now exist to end worldwide starvation in the next generation. A hopeful view prevailed among the 26 speakers addressing an audience of more than 400 gathered at Columbia's second State of the Planet Conference to discuss the role of science in achieving sustainability.

Results of the conference, including archived web broadcasts of all presentations, may be viewed at the Columbia Earth Institute Web site.

"Our base of knowledge across all disciplines has expanded dramatically in the 10 years since the Rio Summit," noted John Mutter, associate vice provost for the Earth Institute at Columbia, which hosted the two-day event. "We know enough about the science of Earth to take action and work at solving the miserable conditions under which a large share of the planet's six billion people live."

A missing link is money to address the problems. Incoming Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs said that if industrialized countries spend just one cent out of every 10 dollars earned, they could create an annual fund of roughly $25 billion with which to control the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, and end death during childbirth as well as from diarrheal diseases. This would save around 25,000 lives daily, or eight million annually. "This is a bargain on the global scale," said Sachs. "I can't believe we are not yet buying this bargain, but I believe that we will."

Speakers at the conference noted that while institutions will need strengthening, scientists have a responsibility to use their knowledge to improve the livelihood of the two billion people living on less than one dollar a day. "Making the transition to sustainability," said keynote speaker Jane Lubchenco, "is the challenge of our time, as we seek to build a world that meets the needs of its peoples while it restores Earth's life support systems."

Added Michael Crow, executive vice provost, "It is the moral responsibility of the Academy to conceptualize and implement the means to produce a sustainable planet." Along with Crow, many speakers voiced a need to build expertise locally. "We need to develop the right institutions within countries to carry out research and decision-making needed at those levels," said Cristian Samper, acting director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Rather than prescribe global solutions, conference participants called for local and regional approaches to complement global approaches. For example, keynote speaker Saleemul Huq, director for the Climate Change Program at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, who comes from Bangladesh, said, "Too often, we receive funding and take the advice that comes with it, rather than employ what we know about our particular situations. We need to combine global and local knowledge, basic scientific research and traditional knowledge."

The conference was intended to send a message to the World Summit on Sustainable Development this August in Johannesburg, and the World Food Summit that will precede it in June in Rome. Conference organizers hope that policy makers at both summits will look to science for the answers to some of the world's most serious problems.

State of the Planet conference speakers cited many specific examples of the ways that science can and does help solve difficult problems facing the world's poor:

  • Improving soil fertility in Africa so that tens of thousands of small farmers are no longer hungry;
  • Training village women in coastal India to download climate information from satellites and transmit ocean wave size predictions to area fishermen;
  • Empowering countries to choose cleaner, modern technologies so that development can proceed with less environmental cost;
  • Raising fish catches by setting aside marine reserves, and
  • Reducing forest loss by increasing the yield of food production.

While science can provide the technical means, institutional and political will are lacking, speakers at the conference said. Uma Lele, an agronomist at the World Bank, observed that, "We have to address the consequences of plenty for the poor of the world. Agriculture needs to become central to development again. The funding is stagnating even as the agenda becomes much more diverse."

In spite of these difficulties, it is significant that the world's leading scientific authorities on sustainability science believe the scientific knowledge exists to solve world poverty. As stated by Harvard scientist Calestous Juma: "We have agreed on the basic problems and we are now in an operational phase."

Professor Sachs will be a key participant at both the Rome and Johannesburg summits as both Special Administrator to Secretary General Kofi Annan and Director of the Earth Institute. Other members of the Earth Institute will join him in Johannesburg.

Columbia's Earth Institute hosted the two-day conference in collaboration with the London School of Economics and Political Science, Harvard University and UNESCO. In just five years, the Earth Institute has become a leader in Earth systems science teaching and research, and the application of that science for the benefit of society.

The Earth Institute counts more than 800 Columbia faculty from eight research centers, eight academic departments and seven schools among its supporters, as well as collaborators in Taiwan, Brazil, Peru, Africa, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Mexico. Through this prototype framework, earth, life and social scientists are working together to broaden understanding of Earth's complex systems, to enhance its sustainability.

Published: Jun 25, 2002
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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