Adding zinc to farmland soil can help prevent childhood stunting, according to a study on children in India, where more than a third under five suffer from stunting.
Stunting is a condition due to chronic undernutrition that is associated with poor brain development and long-lasting harmful consequences, such as reduced school performance and increased disease risks.
For the study, researchers from Stanford University in the US analysed health data from nearly 300,000 children and one million women across India with over 27 million soil tests drawn from a nationwide soil health programme.
The findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, showed that the presence of zinc in soil helps prevent stunted childhood growth, and iron in soil helps keep haemoglobin.
The results suggest that fortifying soil with minerals could be a beneficial health intervention.
The link between soil zinc and childhood stunting is particularly robust. A one standard deviation increase in satisfactory soil zinc tests was associated with approximately 11 fewer children stunted per 1,000, according to the research.
The study is the first large-scale study to examine the association between children’s nutritional status or health outcomes and soil mineral availability in India
It shows that adding minerals to farmland soil could help prevent conditions associated with long-lasting harmful consequences.
“Our results add to a growing body of literature suggesting that interventions like micronutrient-enriched fertilisers may have a positive effect on health,” said lead author Claire Morton, an undergraduate in mathematics and computational science at Stanford.
“This doesn’t prove that those interventions would be cost-effective for India, but it’s an exciting indication that they are worth testing,” Morton added.
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As a result, the researchers suggest that the potential benefits of using zinc-enriched fertilisers as health interventions deserve more consideration in India specifically and perhaps more generally.
“We’re not saying that geography is destiny, but soils really do seem to play a role in shaping child health,” said David Lobell, professor of Earth system science at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.
“Even if this is only a small role, understanding it could help to identify better approaches to solving child stunting in India, which is one of the single biggest and long-standing challenges in global food security.”
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