Kid is measuring the growth

(© Konstantin Yuganov -

STANFORD, Calif. — Adding zinc to soil could help children avoid having their growth stunt too early in life, researchers explain. A team from Stanford University notes that children who are malnourished or deal with chronic undernutrition often experience childhood stunting and poor brain development.

In developing countries like India, over a third of children under five are too short for their age because of poor nutrition. The lack of access to nutrients has translated to poorer performance in school and an increased risk for other diseases. Researchers are hopeful that adding minerals to farmland soil can prevent this outcome.

“Our results add to a growing body of literature suggesting that interventions like micronutrient-enriched fertilizers may have a positive effect on health,” says Claire Morton, an undergraduate in mathematics and computational science at Stanford University who is also the study lead author, in a university release. “This doesn’t prove that those interventions would be cost-effective for India, but it’s an exciting indication that they are worth testing.”

Stanford researchers studied the health of nearly 300,000 children and one million women across India. They also examined the results of 27 million soil tests from a nationwide soil health program.

When the soil contained zinc, children in the area were less likely to have childhood stunting. Iron was an additional bonus. Iron-rich soils helped maintain levels of hemoglobin, an important protein in red blood cells that collects oxygen from the air and delivers it throughout the body.

When the soil contained zinc, children in the area were less likely to have childhood stunting. (Photo by Binyamin Mellish from Pexels)

The findings add to a growing collection of evidence between zinc in soil and adolescent growth rates. For example, a small increase of zinc in soil meant every 11 fewer children for every 1,000 avoided childhood stunting. According to the study authors, a potential health intervention would be for farmers to add zinc-enriched fertilizers for growing food and other crops.

“We’re not saying that geography is destiny, but soils really do seem to play a role in shaping child health,” explains David Lobell, the Gloria and Richard Kushel Director of Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment and a professor of Earth system science in 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 longstanding challenges in global food security.”

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

About Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master's of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor's of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women's health.

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