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Our World — 20 October 2007


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World": Progress toward resolving world hunger, a peanut butter solution for malnutrition in Malawi, an explosion of respiratory illness in Asia and the nuts and bolts of the new environmental politics:

TED NORDHAUS: "Even as several billion people on the planet are going to be living modern lives, the challenge is a very different one. We have to go build and create an entire different new clean energy economy."

Addressing global warming through innovation, invention and investment… that and engineering plants to eat toxic waste. Hi! I'm Rosanne Skirble sitting in for Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Most Countries Making Slow Progress Resolving World Hunger Crisis: Richest nations' commitment to poor inconsistent

Two newly published surveys reflect the state of global poverty and suggest steps to alleviate the burden of hunger and malnutrition in the developing world, where the problems are most acute.

One in seven people in the world go to bed hungry according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. That's 854-million people around the globe, including 150 million children under the age of five.

In 2000, leaders from 189 countries adopted a United Nations plan to cut extreme poverty and hunger. The U.N. Millennium Development goals aimed, by 2015, to cut hunger in half and child mortality by two-thirds.

To assess progress in this quest, the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute [IFPRI] uses a measure it calls the Global Hunger Index. It was developed by IFPRI researcher Doris Wiesmann, who says the Index shows that Latin America, the Caribbean and East Asia are on track toward reaching the U.N.'s hunger and child mortality goals.

DORIS WIESMANN : "We see Cuba on the top of the list. Of course we should not forget [that] in the early 1990s this country plunged into a crisis after the Soviet Union subsidies were withdrawn, but subsequently recovered. But there are other countries like Uruguay, Peru and other ones like the Fiji Islands that also have done relatively well when it comes to progress towards the Global Hunger Index [goals]."

According to the Index, most countries will not reach the U.N. Millennium targets if progress continues at current rates. Nine of the ten countries with the highest levels of hunger are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

DORIS WIESMANN: "We find that the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi have experienced the greatest setbacks, followed by Swaziland, Liberia and North Korea. But when we looked especially at the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi we know that these countries have been heavily involved in conflict for most of this time."

War and armed conflict contribute to malnourishment. But other factors like poverty complicate the picture. Wiesmann says breaking that cycle requires investment in agriculture and education, economic empowerment and available health care services for women.

DORIS WIESMANN: "For example, if mothers are undernourished and suffer from anemia it is likely that children (will be) born with low birth weights and have a bad start in life. So they will grow into underweight preschool children."

Wiesmann hopes the Global Hunger Index will help wealthy countries design more targeted foreign aid programs. She says the measure can also be a tool for government decision-makers and local community activists.

DORRIS WIESMANN: "For example, in Malawi, the journalists have interviewed ministers of agriculture and economic planning referring to the fact that Malawi didn't rank very well. So they were asking the government what they intended to do to improve the situation."

The impact of wealthy nations' policies on the world's poor is evident in another important measure called the Commitment to Development Index, published by the Center for Global Development, a Washington-based think-tank. On policies ranging from foreign aid, immigration, investment, and trade to the environment, security and technology, the annual survey rank 21 rich nations on how their policies impact poor countries.

David Roodman developed the survey. He says scoring adjusts for size, leveling the playing field for large and small nations.

DAVID ROODMAN: "The Netherlands comes in first and close behind are Denmark, Finland and Sweden. These Nordics [northern European countries] all do well in no small part because they give a lot of aid for their size."

The United States ranked 14th in part because U.S. foreign aid totals are low as a percentage of the nation's budget. On environmental development, Roodman says, the index puts the U.S. in last place.

DAVID ROODMAN: "The United States is one of the largest emitters per person of greenhouse gases in the world. But it is places like Bangladesh, Egypt and Vietnam that will suffer if sea level rises because millions and millions of people could be flooded out of their homes in low lying areas. Similarly, India could see its agricultural output go down by 40 percent because of the combination of higher temperatures and lower rainfall, creating essentially a dust bowl in southern India."

Roodman says there is ample room for improvement — even for those like the Netherlands at the top of the list.

DAVID ROODMAN: "Even if it is only about average in four of the seven policy areas that we look at. So that is an important reminder: that even the best could do a lot better and of course that means that all the countries could do a lot better."

Roodman hopes the Commitment to Development Index will generate increased awareness among decision-makers and the public in wealthy countries that their policies have a direct impact on the world's poor.

Operation Peanut Butter Fights Malnutrition

Researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and from the African country of Malawi are advancing in their efforts to save starving children in that Sub-Saharan nation. Using an enriched mixture of peanut butter, they have been able to help thousands of kids recover from malnutrition. Jim Dryden has the story.

JIM DRYDEN: "The researchers have know for several years that a mixture of peanut butter, powdered milk, oil, sugar and other nutrients can help starving children recover. But conducting a small research project to prove that the peanut better mixture works is very different from designing a program to help thousands of children throughout an entire country. That's what's going on now according to the guiding force of Project Peanut Butter, Washington University Emergency Medicine Specialist Mark Manary.

MANARY: "The research work demonstrated that recovery rates could be 95 percent, 85 percent, those kinds of numbers, which were really a remarkable improvement upon even the very best kinds of standard therapy. However, there are still several steps that are important to go through so that this can become a benefit that's extended to large populations of kids."

To make it possible to get the peanut butter mixture into the hands of mothers and children who need it, Manary's team trained village health workers to deliver the therapy. Those workers basically have had about six weeks of first aid training following graduation from high school.

MANARY: "We started out, in the operational program, with about 12 sites, and we've graduated, over the three-year period, to about 30 different sites. And first of all, what we found is that village health aides can do this. No problem. I mean that's great."

They also found that kids with malnutrition get better.

MANARY: "The recovery rates, you know, the outcomes, the children — what hat benefit did they get from the program? — was remarkable. So in this paper, we describe one year's worth of the three year experience, and we have about 21 hundred severely malnourished kids, with a 90 percent recovery rate. And for the moderately malnourished kids, similarly a very good recovery rate of 85 percent."

Project Peanut Butter has built a factory in Malawi where the peanut butter food is made. Manary says it helps restore kids to health because it's very dense in calories and nutrients, much more so than milk or corn porridge, which are the stables of a child's diet in a country like Malawi. Interestingly, Manary's team has consistently found that although the peanut butter mixture works very well, the

Success rate isn't quite as high in moderately malnourished children when compared when compared to sicker more severely malnourished children.

MANARY: "Children with severe malnutrition who are not given any treatment, might have a 50 percent chance of dying. There's, you know, often infections that travel with severe malnutrition, Now, moderate malnutrition is really just being thin, remarkably thin, you know, because you don't have enough to eat, but you're not really manifesting a lot of sickness or illness with those signs."

Although in a country like the United States many children have allergies to peanuts and to peanut butter, Manary says of the thousands of children who have received therapy for malnutrition in Malawi, only one has had a bad reaction to the food.

Dramatic Explosion of Respiratory Disease in China

Also in health news: a new survey shows an increased risk of respiratory disease with the dramatic rise in smoking rates in Asia. Rose Hoban reports:

ROSE HOBAN: "It's estimated that more than two-thirds of Chinese men smoke. This bodes ill for the future of many of these smokers — and for the health care systems in these countries as they begin to develop lung ailments after many years of smoking.

Doctor Don Sin is a lung specialist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He reviewed data collected by a group of public health researchers from Guangzhou, China. He says it is one of the largest studies done in China to date to gauge the extent of lung disease in smokers, involving some 20 thousand people.

SIN: "What these investigators did was they selected various towns and cities across China. And then they went in and randomly selected people over the age of 40 and invited them to this study. And the study consisted of a short questionnaire that individuals had to fill out and a test called spirometry, or more commonly called lung function test. It's this simple breathing test, which tells you how much lung capacity you have."

The research team found about 8 percent of the adults had lung function tests consistent with a diagnosis for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

SIN: "It used to be called smoker's lung, or emphysema, or chronic bronchitis. And really they were referring to the same thing; in general, it means chronic lung disease related to inflammation that is not fully reversible with various medications like steroids, or bronchodilators."

Sin says what surprised the researchers was the finding that women also had high rates of COPD — about 5 percent — even though many fewer women smoked. He suggests that is related to the kind of work women do in the home.

SIN: "Some of that is probably attributed to the so-called biomass exposure. You know, women do most of the cooking in many parts of China and they're exposed to fumes and dust related to cooking, you know, over an open fire or using carbonaceous products as their cooking fuel."

Sin says although 8 percent might seem to be a small number, it actually represents tens of millions of people in China who will become ill with severe respiratory disease in the near future. He predicts that lung disease will probably become the second or third most common cause of death in the country and notes that few anti-smoking measures are being enacted to reverse the trend.

Sin wrote a commentary that accompanies the research article. Both are published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. [ROSE HOBAN]

Genetically Engineered Plants Eat Toxic Waste

Researchers have genetically engineered plants with an eye toward neutralizing toxic waste on military bases and mopping up industrial chemicals near manufacturing sites. As VOA's Jessica Berman reports, the scientists are using the plants as a natural solution to serious environmental hazards.

BERMAN: It's called phyto-remediation, the use of plants to rid soil of toxic pollutants that threaten the drinking water of communities located near military or industrial sites. In two papers published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers describe how they have genetically engineered plants to take up the toxic, chemical by products of military and manufacturing operations.

One study targets a chemical called RDA, which is a contaminant found on military training ranges. Liz Rylott of the University of York in Great Britain is a plant molecular biologist and the lead author of that study. Rylott says RDX is a key component of TNT that accumulates as a detonation residue or when weapons are left sitting around. Rylott says RDX does not degrade naturally, instead seeping into the soil and threatening water supplies.

RYLOTT: "What we did is we went to the soil on the training ranges and we collected samples and we found bacteria that were able to degrade RDX themselves and use it as their food supply. But they don't clean it up themselves on the training ranges because they don't a good critical mass to really deal with the problem."

Rylott and colleagues identified the gene in the bacteria, called aribidopsis, which neutralizes RDX and engineered it so that enough aribidopsis can be mass-produced to degrade the military toxin.

RYLOTT: "The next step which we are currently doing now is to transfer this technology into grass species, perennial grasses, that we can grow on the military training ranges."

A likely test site for the neutralizing bacteria is the Massachusetts Military Reservation in Cape Cod where the use of RDX has been restricted because of its threat to drinking water. But observers say there are potentially serious problems to be worked out with phyto-remediation efforts such as RDX technology.

Terry Hazen is head of the Center for Environmental Technology at the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in Berkeley, California. Hazen says something has to be done with the plants after they take up toxins from the soil.

HAZEN: "The plant is exposed to then bugs and bunnies and literally deer or whatever and/or then people and can literally be carried away or disseminated."

In the second paper published in PNAS, researchers at the University of Washington described the use of poplar trees to siphon off chemicals in the soil used in, among other things, dry cleaning and petroleum products.

Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger.

Alternative forms of energy can lead to a cleaner, greener planet. But they need greater support, say Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, authors of a new book titled Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. In it, they argue against what they call the "paradigm of pollution." Nordhaus says overcoming global warming demands more than pollution control, but a new kind of economic development.

NORDHAUS: "Understanding this as a problem of too many humans, too much human intrusion on nature and too much pollution leads us to the kinds of solutions that we see primarily focused on right now by environmental groups, which is limiting pollution, regulating carbon. While those things are no doubt part of the solution when we really look at the profound changes that we need to make to address global warming, to reduce global carbon emissions by something 70 or 80 percent by the end of this century, even as several billion people on the planet are going to be living modern lives, the challenge is a very different one. We have to go build and create an entire different new clean energy economy."

SKIRBLE: "If not limits, restrictions and conservation, then what?"

NORDHAUS: "It's innovation, invention and investment. What that means is that literally the only solution, and this is not just our view, but when you really review the literature among energy experts and energy economists, the only way that you get those deep reductions at a global level is by radically bringing down the price of clean energy alternatives like solar, wind and other sources that are cost competitive with dirty energy sources, primarily coal, which is the cheapest energy source that we have right now. That's the only way we are going to get there. And that is going to require big public investments to drive the cost of these energy sources down. We think that is the kind of model we need to apply to things like solar panels which are still vastly too expensive to deploy broadly, even with carbon caps and carbon taxes and the other approaches that environmentalists focus on."

SKIRBLE: "You're calling for an investment-centered approach to energy. How much, how big. What kind of investment are you calling for?"

SCHELLENBERGER: "Our proposal, and as Ted mentioned we've done a pretty extensive review of the literature, what we are suggesting is on the order of 30 billion dollars a year or 300 billion over ten years. And this isn't just for research and development and laboratories, but this is to deploy clean energy technology. We've done it before. Obviously the [U.S.] Defense Department brought down the price of microchips from $1,000 dollars a microchip to $20 a microchip. The DOD invented the Internet. These are all things that Americans do well and that we need to do again around clean energy. And, it's not just us. It really has to happen globally. And, so the argument we make is that China and India are not going to agree to curb their greenhouse gas emissions unless it's in their economic interest to do so. What we suggest is that really once America puts 300 million in public investment on the table, we calculate that private firms will follow with about another 200 billion. Then you are up to half a trillion dollars. Let's imagine that Europe and Japan come in with another 500 billion dollars. Suddenly you've got a lot of money to work with in terms of making big clean energy investments, not just in the United States, and in Europe, but in countries like China and India who really stand to benefit from these new markets, as we will. There are all sorts of possibilities that emerge in terms of a win-win when you begin and lead with investment."

NORDHAUS: "I'd just like to add one other thing thing: We need a whole set of other players to step up to the plate, business folks, investors and grassroots folks who are concerned about the future of the environment, but then also folks who see that there is great promise in the clean energy economy for all of us to build a more equitable and just economy for all of us to live in not only here in the U.S., but globally as well."

SKIRBLE: "And, finally, what is your advice to someone here in the United States or elsewhere around the world who feels hopeless about resolving the environmental problems of our day?"

NORDHAUS: "As we say in the book, we don't suggest that our readers or anyone else ignore what we call 'the nightmare,' the serious challenges, the serious crisis that we are faced with. We need to take a clear-eyed look at what they are and what they demand of us. But then we have the capacity to innovate. We have the capacity to create. We have extraordinary wealthy societies with the resources to invest. We can get there if we take that challenge seriously. And if we are expansive enough in our thinking not to imagine that we are going to limit ourselves towards prosperity, but that we are going to create the prosperity, create the societies, create the economies that can support all of our dreams."

Ted Nordhous and Michael Shellenberger, authors of Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. The two are managing directors of Environics, a social values research and political strategy think tank.

And, that's our program for this week. We're always interested in your comments or your science questions. Email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Rob Sivak is our editor. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. I'm Rosanne Skirble. Join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next week with Art Chimes at this same time as we explore the latest in science and technology on "Our World."

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