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Bio-engineered micronutrients may be the most cost-effective way to help the poor

Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal


This week saw the announcement of the latest conclusions of
the Copenhagen Consensus, a project founded by Bjørn Lomborg in
which expert economists write detailed papers every four years and
then gather to vote on the answer to a simple question: Imagine you
had $75 billion to donate to worthwhile causes. What would you do,
and where should we start?


This is the third time the consensus has spoken. Though such
agreements should always be treated with caution-after all, a
consensus of global experts in 1920 would probably have prioritized
eugenics-the three pronouncements are remarkable for their
consistency and yet also for their capacity to surprise. At the top
of the list this year, as in 2008 (it was second only to HIV in
2004), comes the unsexy topic of micronutrients. The smartest way
to benefit the most disadvantaged people is to get them vitamins
and minerals.


On three different occasions now, three different groups of
experts, with no ax to grind and no stake in vitamin firms, have
reached the same answer. Enhancing nutrients, they calculate,
yields benefits 30 times greater than costs. The readers of Slate
magazine, given the chance to vote on the Copenhagen Consensus in
recent weeks, mostly agreed-putting micronutrients second only to
family planning.


The evidence for micronutrients has been getting stronger.
Studies from Guatemala, following up children for 30 years, find
that good early nutrition not only combats stunting and increases
intelligence but, says Dr. Lomborg, “also translates into higher
education and substantially higher (23.8%) incomes in adult life,
which not only matters to the individuals but also starts a
virtuous circle.”


I asked him if he was surprised that micronutrients became the
consistent top priority among his experts. He replied: “I’m
surprised that we don’t hear more about this, and I’m gratified
that we got it right, way before it became obvious that it really
is one of the best ways forward.”


Another person who spotted the importance of micronutrients a
long time ago is a Swiss geneticist, Ingo Potrykus. Realizing that
insufficient calories was not the only form of malnutrition, he
concluded that vitamin A deficiency, for those living on a
monotonous diet of rice, was the most tractable of the big problems
facing the world. He and Peter Beyer designed a new variety of rice
plant that could be given away free to help the poorest people in
the world.


Vitamin A deficiency affects the immune system, leading to
illness and frequently to blindness. It probably causes more deaths
than malaria, HIV or tuberculosis each year, killing as many people
as the Fukushima tsunami every single day. It can be solved by
eating green vegetables and meat, but for many poor Asians, who can
afford only rice, that remains an impossible dream. But
“biofortification” with genetically modified plant food (such as
golden rice) is 1/10th as costly as dietary supplements.


“Golden rice”-with two extra genes to make beta-carotene, the
raw material for vitamin A-was a technical triumph, identical to
ordinary rice except in color. Painstaking negotiations led to
companies waiving their patent rights so the plant could be grown
and regrown free by anybody.


Yet today, 14 years later, it still has not been licensed to
growers anywhere in the world. The reason is regulatory red tape
deliberately imposed to appease the opponents of genetic
modification, which Adrian Dubock, head of the Golden Rice project,
describes as “a witch-hunt for suspected theoretical environmental
problems … [because] many activist NGOs thought that genetically
engineered crops should be opposed as part of their
anti-globalization agenda.”


It is surprising to find that an effective solution to the
problem consistently rated by experts as the poor world’s highest
priority has been stubbornly opposed by so many pressure groups
supposedly acting on behalf of the poor.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  wall-street-journal