Micronutrients into the food supply

The Economist reported that when eight eminent economists were asked how they would spend $75 billion to most help the world, 5 of their top 10 recommendations involved nutrition including:

  • Vitamins for children
  • Adding zinc and iodine to salt
  • Breeding micronutrients into crops

Other recommendations included more girls’ schools and trade liberalization.

Of the 40 nutrients every person needs, four are in chronically short supply:  iron, zinc, iodine and Vitamin A.

Vitamin A is essential for the mucous membranes that protect the body’s organs, such as the eyes.  Lack of it causes half a million children to go blind every year; hal fo them die within a year as their other organs fail … Zinc deficiencies impairs brain and motor functions and causes roughly 400,000 deaths a year. Shortage of iron (anaemia) weakens the immune system and affects, in some poor countries, half of all women of child-bearing age.

Children with nutrient deficiencies do more poorly at school and have reduced earning potential.  Statistics also show that the malnourished also tend to marry each other continuing the cycle of under achievement and development.

The most common response is to attempt to hand out vitamin pills or fortify foods like salt with iodine. But the nutritional deficiencies persist, so there is a new exploration of whether getting the nutrients directly into the local food supply might be a better approach.

As the article points out, this approach is no panacea as it is difficult to influence the poor to buy (as most buy vs. grow their own food) the right kinds of foods especially if they cost more.  Some countries who have focused on increased agriculture value-added have decreased malnutrition (Malawi, Bangladesh and Vietnam) while others have the opposite result (Egypt, Guatemala and India).

What seems to matter is encouraging the right crops.  Common policies encouraging cheap grain have not helped.  These cereals provide calories, but are low on nutrients.  Policies which encourage consumption of vegetables, pulses and meats have much more nutrient benefits.

One key fact to keep in mind: Early intervention is critical as the first 1,000 days of malnutrition have the most damage.

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