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World Hunger Can Be Ended, Scientists at Columbia University Conference Assert

May 16, 2002 Scientists speaking at Columbia University 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 University's second State of the Planet Conference on May 13 and 14 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 website,

John Mutter

"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 6 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 ten 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 8 million people 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."

A Responsibility to Help

Speakers at the conference noted that while institutions and political will need strengthening, scientists have a responsibility to use their knowledge to improve the livelihood of the 2 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."

Michael Crow

Added Michael Crow, Executive Vice Provost at Columbia University, "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 Cristián 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 Power of Science as an Anti-poverty Tool

The State of the Planet 2002 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.

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.

  • 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."

Calestous Juma

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.


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State of the Planet 2002 Conference

In the last part of the 20th century, significant advances have been achieved in fields of science such as climate forecasting, biotechnology, water management, global carbon cycling, and ecosystem dynamics that have profound salience to the lives of many of the world's peoples.

Yet, with August's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg approaching, debate about the need for sustainable development initiatives and the role that science might play in these efforts is growing. Living conditions have not significantly improved in the developing world and upwards of one third of all the world's people still live in poverty. In May 2002 at Columbia University in New York, a major international conference will bring together leading natural and social scientists with policy analysts and decision-makers to debate issues surrounding the science of sustainability at the State of the Planet 2002 conference.

CONFERENCE: State of the Planet 2002: Science and Sustainability

Columbia University, Roone Arledge Auditorium, Lerner Hall
Broadway between 114th and 115th Streets, New York City

WHEN: Monday, May 13 and Tuesday, May 14, 2002
SPONSORS: Columbia University, in collaboration with London School of Economics and Political Science, Harvard University, and UNESCO

"The issues at stake are profound," according to Professor John Mutter, associate vice provost, Columbia Earth Institute and chair of the conference steering committee. "Can scientists and governments throughout the world together find ways of balancing the needs of people and the natural world? How can scientific and technological advances contribute to sustaining all the world's population of 6.1 billion people and rising?" Participants, including international leaders in science and policy, will debate the major social, economic, political, and ethical challenges to sustainable development, focusing on three pressing issues:

  • Urban Sustainability: How can global cities such as New York, Shanghai, Sao Paulo, and Rome reconcile human and environmental pressures?
The world, both developed and underdeveloped, is rapidly moving toward intense urbanization. Most of the world's great cities lie in coastal zones and river mouths vulnerable to climate extremes and other hazards. The intensity of population concentrations coupled with fragile, exposed, and older infrastructure make major cities highly vulnerable to natural and human-induced disasters in a way that scientists and urban planners are working to comprehend and mitigate. Additionally, the movement of rural populations lured into cities by the expectations of advancement has not relieved suffering and frequently exposes people to greater risks. Urban centers often house the poor in unplanned regions with scarce, polluted water, poor sanitation leading to disease, and subject to landslides, flooding and other hazards.
  • Conservation of Biological Resources: How can humans learn to become nature's partner, without sacrificing basic needs, in order to preserve their own future survival?
The rate of species loss on our planet due to human activities is staggering. Human activity currently rivals or exceeds any natural force in ability to suppress and destroy other species. Following the image of the straw that broke the camel's back, there is concern that we are approaching a critical threshold where further reductions in biological diversity will cause dramatic and unpredictable changes in the vital services provided to human society by natural ecosystems. Some scientists argue that critical areas of abundant biodiversity must be freed of any human influence and preserved even if it means displacing humans from certain areas altogether. Others, including a new cadre of environmental economists, argue that a strategic alliance of mutual benefit can be struck between humans and natural systems if the value of this alliance can only be properly assessed.
  • Global Food Security: How will the world adequately feed an expected 9 billion people by the year 2050?
In today's world of 6.1 billion people, one third live in poverty. In a world projected to reach 9 billion people, perhaps 4 billion people will be poor and half of them may be chronically hungry. Lack of access to adequate food and clean water maintain large populations in desperate conditions, draining meager national resources and preventing their advancement. Food production is fundamentally related to climate conditions, particularly in arid and tropical regions where most poor live. But scientists have recently learned how to forecast climate conditions in these regions, holding great hope for the improvement of food security. Genetically engineered crops hold the potential to solve some of the critical food shortages in the poorest countries, while public protest over unanticipated harmful consequences of their use is largely expressed in richer countries. At the State of the Planet 2002 conference, natural and social scientists together with other global experts will consider the role of scientific and technological advances in enhancing sustainability. Threaded throughout these discussions, conference participants will consider a suite of common concerns including global governance of scientific resources, developing resilience to natural hazards, climate change, water security, equity issues, as well as the role of indigenous knowledge and access to the science and technology for the advancement of developing countries.

The Columbia Earth Institute is a leader in Earth systems science teaching, research and the application of Earth and social science for human needs. The Institute is the outcome of Columbia University's commitment to enhance understanding of global sustainability through the collaborative work of physical, biological, and social scientists in cooperation with an informed by and involved citizenry. For more information, visit