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Panelists at AAAS Forum Urge More Aggressive Anti-Poverty Effort
ST. LOUIS — On a typical day, tens of thousands of people worldwide will die of causes related to poverty. What compounds the tragedy is that humans have the scientific, technological and medical tools to prevent those deaths, if only the world were committed to the goal.
That was the assessment shared by a panel of researchers and policy experts Thursday at the AAAS Annual Meeting in St. Louis. Gathered for the meeting’s first formal session — a breakfast with some 60 U.S. and international reporters — the panelists stressed that much could be done immediately to relieve world poverty, and that the effort would bring benefits not only to poor nations, but to affluent nations as well.
"It's very sad and makes the world much more dangerous,” said Per Pinstrup-Anderson, a professor of food, nutrition and public policy at Cornell University in New York. “More people will be motivated to commit acts of terror to express their rage at the growing disparity and unfairness between the rich and poor."
Speakers at the forum offered the journalists a troubling foundation of facts. World population has grown from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 6.5 billion today, with another 2 to 3 billion expected in the first half of the 21st century. Some 800 million people worldwide don’t get enough to eat every day. The three richest people in the world have more money combined than the 550 million poorest.
A global map on display at the discussion showed infant mortality rates, with the countries of sub-Saharan Africa appearing as a mosaic of human disaster. “There is almost no reason for death at this scale except for poverty,” said John Mutter, a professor and deputy director/associate vice provost of The Earth Institute at Columbia University.
In the past 30 years, there have been 26 international conferences on poverty and hunger, said Pinstrup-Anderson. While all ended with goals and targets for improvement, none have been achieved.
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"Even though 186 countries agreed with the Millennium Development Goals to reduce the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day by half, no one's doing anything about it," said Pinstrup-Anderson, former director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute. "It's disgraceful — it’s immoral and appalling. We could achieve the goals, but won't."
Population growth and the increasing rate at which we’re using available resources makes the prospects for improving the world situation “extraordinarily difficult,” said panelist Peter Raven, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden and a former president of AAAS.
For example, he pointed to the growing use of cars in China and the importance of such transportation to the economy of both the country and world automakers. But the negative impact of cars on the environment is already well-known, he said. “What we need to do in science and technology is to innovate in ways that are sustainable.”
Claude Fauquet, an expert on the cassava plant at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, said the starchy tropical root crop is one of the top calories sources in poor countries. While productivity averages about 10 tons per acre, it could be raised to 80 tons per acre with improved cultivation techniques and better pest and disease control.
Other panelists urged support for genetically modified crops, saying that Western political opposition results in hunger and death in the developing world.
A woman who has just lost her child because of drought and crop failure “couldn’t care less” if food was genetically modified, Pinstrup-Anderson said. “She wants a solution.”
“Genetically modified crops need to be developed according to the needs of different places in the world,” said Raven. “But insisting on the idea that they are the solution, or that they should be proscribed — it doesn’t make sense in either direction.”
Panelist Roger N. Beachy, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, said scientists and technological experts must go into poor countries as equal partners with local researchers and officials, sharing their knowledge and acknowledging their ignorance. “There is a lot for all of us to do, in all disciplines,” he said.
Edward W. Lempinen
17 February 2006