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Laurier economist presents acclaimed solution for fighting malnutrition
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How do you spend $75 billion to make the world a better place?
This was a question asked of Laurier economics professor Dr. Sue Horton for the 2008 Copenhagen Consensus Conference, a project for which expert economists were asked to develop and present cost-efficient solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.
The 10 challenges – air pollution, conflicts, diseases, education, global warming, malnutrition and hunger, sanitation and water, subsidies and trade barriers, terrorism, women and development – and their solutions were then ranked by a panel of eight of the world’s top economists, including five Nobel Laureates.
Horton, who was asked to present a proposal on fighting malnutrition, was declared to have the No. 1 solution to the most pressing problem out of about 50 solutions.
“Despite significant reductions in income-poverty in recent years, undernutrition remains widespread,” Horton wrote in her proposal. Recent estimates suggest that malnutrition causes 2.8 million deaths annually and has stunted the growth of 177 million children below the age of five today.
“Undernutrition in turn has negative effects on income and on economic growth,” she continues. It leads “to a loss of economic output and increased spending on health. Poor nutrition means that individuals are less productive … and that children benefit less from education.”
Presenting her acclaimed solution to an enthusiastic audience at Laurier last week on World Food Day, Horton suggested that providing micronutrients for 80 percent of the world’s 140 million children who lack essential vitamins – specifically vitamin A and zinc – would cost just $60 million a year. More importantly, this action would result in yearly benefits of more than $1 billion.
“We were given a set of parameters we had to follow in our proposals,” Horton explained to the crowd inside the Paul Martin Centre. Providing the benefit/cost ratio was one of the parameters. Another one was attaching a dollar value to a human life.
“It’s not easy to make economic assumptions about human life, and it’s something I prefer not to do. However, we do this implicitly when we decide whether or not to make roads safer or hire more nurses in hospitals. I swallowed my initial distaste because I felt the outcome would draw important media attention to these issues, and that was worth it.”
Horton’s calculations put the value of a single life in poor countries at $30,000 and in middle-income countries at $150,000.
Providing vitamin A and zinc micronutrients requires only 20 cents and one dollar, respectively, per person per year.
“These are all inexpensive solutions,” said Horton. “Anything multiplied by two billion, which is the number of people deficient in iron, is a big number.”
All 10 proposals for the Copenhagen Consensus had to offer five distinct solutions to the challenges they were assigned. In addition to her micronutrient solution, Horton’s four other solutions all made it into the top 10 alongside solutions for trade, disease, education, and women and development.
“I was very happy on one hand,” said Horton of the results, though she felt it was disheartening that “we live in a rich world and these very basic issues are still the top priorities.”
Horton’s other proposals suggest that micronutrient fortification, biofortification, deworming and community-based nutrition programs are also viable solutions.
Micronutrient fortification involves fortifying foods with iodine and iron. It’s a concept you see everyday when you look at your cereal box, she explained. Biofortification involves breeding plants to increase their vitamin A, zinc and iron content, which is particularly useful for rice since fortification of this grain is difficult.
While Horton’s proposal does not focus on specifically long-term solutions, such as improving agricultural crops, there are immediate benefits for children and benefits for their future.
“These are short-term solutions though I would not call them band-aid solutions,” she said. “The value of the benefits is large, both in economic terms and human terms. Hundreds of thousands of children’s lives would be saved by these low-cost interventions.”
Improved nutrition will also increase productivity so that children can learn better and be valuable to the economy as adults.
In addition to having her research written about in newspapers in over 26 countries, Horton has made presentations to the Canadian International Development Agency, Helen Keller International and at the Flour Fortification Initiative’s European Regional Flour Fortification Consultation as well as to local groups who have already supported micronutrient initiatives.
“So it’s not over,” she concluded. “To some extent I have to make the most of the next three years until the next Copenhagen Consensus to try to get some attention to help the momentum behind implementing the solutions I proposed, some of which are partially implemented and some of which are in the early stages. Organizations are using my results and, hopefully, will find more support and funding for these interventions.”