Variety is an inherent fringe benefit of my job, but rarely does it get more jarring than in these past two weeks, which have taken me from the famine zone in Africa’s Sahel region to glittering beachside hotels in Brazil.

In rural Niger, we filmed the withering bodies of children and a scramble by government and aid agencies to contain the effects of what has become chronic hunger. In Rio de Janeiro this week, world leaders will try to update agreements reached at the Earth Summit here in 1992, which addressed global environmental issues that threaten food security in places like Niger and complicate efforts to attack poverty everywhere.

The results of 1992 summit and other high-level global agreements have at best been mixed. There has been progress in restoring the ozone layer, for example, but carbon dioxide emissions increased 38 percent between 1990 and 2008. Eighty-five percent of the oceans’ fish stocks are now “over-exploited, depleted, recovering or fully exploited,” according to a U.N. report called “Resilient People, Resilient Planet.” 

The number of people living in absolute poverty (at or below $1.25 per day) has declined substantially, and per-capita gross domestic product grew 75 percent between 1992 and 2005. But the gains have been geographically lopsided, with China and distantly second India accounting for most of them. The number of hungry people actually has increased – particularly in sub-Saharan Africa – due to poor access to food and rising prices, while environmental degradation imperils future food production.

Globally, there is growing inequality between the haves and have-nots. Of all the proxies for the gaping divide, this one from the U.N. report stands out for me: “Food wasted by consumers in high-income countries (222 million tons) is roughly equal to the entire food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons).”

In poor countries, food tends to be lost in storage and transportation. In wealthy countries, the greatest waste occurs at the retail and consumer levels. But the total amount lost is nearly the same among the rich as among the poor. In all, about 30 to 40 percent of the food humans produce is never eaten.

I was invited to Rio to moderate a panel called “Sustainable Development for Fighting Poverty,” one of a series of public discussions prior to the main “Rio+20” conference. Organized by the Brazilian government, the goal of this pre-conference was to add the voices of ordinary citizens to the discourse and agreements.

Among the recommendations from our panel were a commitment to ensure access to education (globally, 67 million children did not attend school in 2009), health care, water and sanitation (2.6 billion people lack access to the latter) and a sharing of both modern and traditional technology that could lead to improved yields and sustainable agricultural production.

Among the panelists, as among the thousands of people involved in online discussions and debates, there was little optimism that Rio+20 will lead to substantive action on the myriad challenges of sustainable development, especially given current political and economic realities in key nations. While more than 100 heads of state will be attending the conference, the leaders of the United States, Germany and Britain will not be among them.

With some of the most powerful countries distracted by other crises, one cannot help but wonder how worlds as disparate as rural Niger and beachside Rio can find common ground.

And yet, the need for common ground couldn’t be more urgent. One panelist, Pavan Sukhdev, a former banker and consultant on sustainable growth, said that in a world of finite and dwindling resources, with a population that will reach 9 billion by 2050, sustainability is not an option, but an imperative. Already, he said, we are spending nature’s principal, not its interest.

Fred de Sam Lazaro reported a story for the “Food for 9 Billion” series from east Africa in April and recently traveled to west Africa for a piece on efforts to avert future food shortages there. He spent the last few days in Rio de Janeiro, where world leaders are gathered for the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development this week. Look for his report from west Africa’s Sahel region on PBS NewsHour in July.

 
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Fred de Sam Lazaro

Fred de Sam Lazaro is director of the Project for Under-Told Stories, a program that combines international journalism and teaching, and a senior distinguished fellow at the Hendrickson Institute for Ethical Leadership at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, in the Twin Cities and Winona, Minn. He has served with the NewsHour since 1985 and is a regular contributor and substitute anchor for PBS' Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. He also has directed films from India and the Democratic Republic of Congo for the acclaimed documentary series, "Wide Angle." Fred has reported from 50 countries: from Haiti to sub-Saharan Africa to south Asia, he has focused on stories that are under-reported in the mainstream U.S. media. In addition to regularly covering AIDS, public health concerns, development issues and social entrepreneurship, he led the first American crew to report on the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region. Fred is the recipient of an honorary doctorate, numerous journalism awards and media fellowships from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Michigan. He is a trustee at the College of St. Scholastica, in Duluth, Minn., his alma mater. He serves on the board of MinnPost, an online nonprofit Minnesota-based news service, and also has served on the boards of the Asian American Journalists Association and the Children's Law Center of Minnesota. Fred was born in Bangalore, India and lives in St. Paul.