Saving the Earth: the Challenges We Face

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--POPULATION AND HEALTH: While the number of people on earth is still rising rapidly, especially in the developing countries of Asia, the good news is that the growth rate is slowing. World population increased 48% from 1975 to 2000, compared with 64% from 1950 to 1975. As this gradual deceleration continues, the population is expected to level off eventually, perhaps at 11 billion sometime in the last half of this century.

Economic-development and family-planning programs have helped slow the tide of people, but in some places, population growth is moderating for all the wrong reasons. In the poorest parts of the world, most notably Africa, infectious diseases such as AIDS, malaria, cholera and tuberculosis are having a Malthusian effect. Rural-land degradation is pushing people into cities, where crowded, polluted living conditions create the perfect breeding grounds for sickness. Worldwide, at least 68 million are expected to die of AIDS by 2020, including 55 million in sub-Saharan Africa. While any factor that eases population pressures may help the environment, the situation would be far less tragic if rich nations did more to help the developing world reduce birth rates and slow the spread of disease.

Efforts to provide greater access to family planning and health care have proved effective. Though women in the poorest countries still have the most children, their collective fertility rate is 50% lower than it was in 1969 and is expected to decline more by 2050. Other programs targeted at women include basic education and job training. Educated mothers not only have a stepladder out of poverty, but they also choose to have fewer babies.

Rapid development will require good health care for the young since there are more than 1 billion people ages 15 to 24. Getting programs in place to keep this youth bubble healthy could make it the most productive generation ever conceived. Says Thoraya Obaid, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund: "It's a window of opportunity to build the economy and prepare for the future."

--FOOD: Though it's not always easy to see it from the well-fed West, up to a third of the world is in danger of starving. Two billion people lack reliable access to safe, nutritious food, and 800 million of them--including 300 million children--are chronically malnourished.

Agricultural policies now in place define the very idea of unsustainable development. Just 15 cash crops such as corn, wheat and rice provide 90% of the world's food, but planting and replanting the same crops strips fields of nutrients and makes them more vulnerable to pests. Slash-and-burn planting techniques and overreliance on pesticides further degrade the soil.

Solving the problem is difficult, mostly because of the ferocious debate over how to do it. Biotech partisans say the answer lies in genetically modified crops--foods engineered for vitamins, yield and robust growth. Environmentalists worry that fooling about with genes is a recipe for Frankensteinian disaster. There is no reason, however, that both camps can't make a contribution.

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