Remarks at The Politics of Food: A Conference on New York's Next Policy Challenge

November 19, 2008

Thanks to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, for spearheading and co-sponsoring this conference; our School of International and Public Affairs, our Earth Institute's Urban Design Lab and our Office of Environmental Stewardship, for helping make this conference possible.  Thank you, also, to today's distinguished speakers.

Welcome.  We are delighted to have Columbia co-sponsor this important conference on one of the crucial policy challenges facing our city, and indeed, our world - the politics of food.

We are going to have an opportunity to hear both from a distinguished collection of international authorities as well as some of New York's leading experts on an aspect of sustainability that has often been overlooked and is now gaining much-needed attention.  As we all know, you can no longer talk about health policy or energy policy or environmental policy without talking about food policy.  The way we grow, process, and eat food affects our ability to cut greenhouse gases, achieve energy independence, and improve public health and, thereby, control our skyrocketing health care costs.

At Columbia we have made environmental sustainability a centerpiece of our teaching, research, and campus infrastructure efforts both here in New York and around the world.  I am especially proud that Columbia University has been a Partner in Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC initiative.  As a challenge partner, we have committed to reduce our greenhouse emissions by 30 percent in the next 10 years, matching the Mayor's commitment for cutting emissions from City operations.  At the same time, a number of our faculty are using their expertise in climate change and adaptation to advise and contribute to PlaNYC.

I am also proud of the fact that Columbia has just announced the first global initiative to provide rigorous professional training for future leaders in the field of sustainable development.  A new two-year Global Master's in Development Practice Programs will begin in the fall of 2009. 

The University already offers 24 environmental degree-granting programs, an undergraduate sustainable development concentration, and is home of the Earth Institute.  For decades, our Earth Institute - and its Lamont Doherty Observatory - has been a pioneering leader in climate change.  The Institute is combining our historic leadership in climate change and earth sciences with issues of culture and development in the search for ways to build a truly sustainable society, here and around the world. 

Our Office of Environmental Stewardship, led by Nilda Mesa, has had remarkable success with efforts to reduce the University's carbon footprint.  These efforts range from comprehensive incentive-based recycling programs to significant gains in energy efficiency.  We not only have installed green roofs on some of our campus buildings, we are spreading a green mind-set that is so essential to changing the way we live and work.

As a result of these efforts, Columbia was one of only 15 of the 300 participating U.S. universities to receive an "A-" for sustainability by a 2009 report from the Sustainable Endowments Institute.  As part of that grade, and especially relevant to today's conference, the University earned an "A" in the "food and recycling" category - 16 percent of the food served in our dining halls is purchased locally.  An organic student co-op in one dining hall sells campus-grown produce, and fair-trade coffee is served at all venues.  The campus also hosts a farmer's market twice a week.  

Some of you may know that Dickson Despommier, a professor in our Mailman School of Public Health, is a leading champion of one of the most inventive new ideas in urban food policy - the concept of Vertical Farming.  Many of you here also know of Gro Harlem Brundtlandwho now serves as Special Envoy for Climate Change for United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon.  More than two decades ago, the Brundtland Commission report put the matter before us simply and powerfully: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs."  It was just another way of reminding us that we borrow the earth from our children as much as we inherit it from our parents.  We are proud to be a partner and a host for this important step in New York City's commitment to fulfilling that responsibility.

Now I would like to introduce one of New York's most active and innovative sustainability advocates.  Last year, Manhattan Borough President, Scott Stringer launched the Go Green East Harlem Initiative, a multi-faceted campaign to improve health and nutrition in East Harlem and provide a model for environmental action in other urban neighborhoods.  Due to his efforts, we have seen the opening of a new asthma center, the planting of hundreds of street trees in East Harlem; a new Farmer's Market on 106th Street; a ‘green building' conference for developers, planners, and community advocates; and the publication of the bilingual Go Green East Harlem Cook Book, which features healthy recipes and is offered free of charge to East Harlem residents.  It is my pleasure to introduce Manhattan Borough President, Scott Stringer.