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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Red tape hobbles a harvest of life-saving rice

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.