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Micronutrients pack a macro-impact

BY TIM LOUGHEED | AUG 05 2008

It might have looked like just another academic speaking gig for Sue Horton, complete with a nice trip to Denmark. But when the Wilfrid Laurier University economist proposed some solutions to child malnutrition, she quickly found herself vaulted into international prominence.

That’s because the group she was addressing was the Copenhagen Consensus, a highly focused think-tank that meets annually to review the best ways of tackling the world’s biggest problems. A panel of eight distinguished economists – including five Nobel laureates – heard 30 formal proposals for dealing with everything from global warming to the education of women. And when they were done ranking each submission according to the benefits it would yield for the cost, Dr. Horton’s entry came in first.

The proposal, co-authored with researchers from the World Bank and Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health, advocates fortifying staple foods like flour with key micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron, zinc and folate. According to Dr. Horton, such a plan might take $60 million a year to implement but would reap some $1 billion in the form of reduced medical expenditures and increased future earnings for the up to 140 million children who would benefit. That rate of return put micronutrients well ahead of other suggestions that went before the panel, eclipsing such high-profile topics as the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions to mitigate climate change.

“It’s not surprising that something very definite, which has been honed, is more cost-effective than something ill-defined like climate change,” she says. “That doesn’t mean to say that we should stop researching climate change. It’s just that we don’t know how to intervene yet.”

What did surprise her was the ambitious way in which the results of the Copenhagen Consensus were publicized. The event is the brainchild of Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg, well known as a gadfly in environmental circles for his book The Skeptical Environmentalist. He and Dr. Horton subsequently wrote an op-ed article on the virtues of micronutrients, which circulated in dozens of newspapers around the world.

“A colleague in the Flour Fortification Initiative asked me how I managed to get into the Taiwan Times,” she says, noting that charitable groups have also been inquiring about her field. “It’s been like riding the storm, because I’ve gotten so many calls.”

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