If zinc had a slogan it would be the metal with might. And also: chemical element with a cause.
More than half of the 12 million tons of zinc produced each year is used to protect steel from corrosion, making it stronger.
Zinc also plays a vital role in strengthening the human body. It helps boost the immune system to fight off a wide-range of illness and enhances physical growth, particularly in young children. Zinc deficiency is rare in North America and is most common among children in developing countries. It weakens the immune system and leaves the body vulnerable to infectious diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia, which can lead to death. It can also cause slow growth in infants and children, including both physical and intellectual retardation.
Still, studies show about one-third of the world's population is zinc deficient. About half of the world's agricultural soil also lacks sufficient amounts of the micronutrient used not only to make food more nutritious, but also to increase crop production.
In China, the world's second-largest economy and home to about one-fifth of the global population, half of its arable land has been identified as being low in zinc.
The World Health Organization calls zinc deficiency "a public-health problem," responsible for malnutrition of children in developing countries and behind hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide.
It's a urgent issue the zinc industry, represented by the non-profit International Zinc Association , is tackling head on through partnerships with UNICEF and most recently China's Ministry of Agriculture.
The IZA's goal is to get more zinc into crop fertilizers and into the mouths of people who need it most.
While zinc producers can clearly benefit from increased use of zinc, IZA chairman Don Lindsay said it's the social agenda not a commercial angle that's driving the campaign.
Less than 1 per cent of annual zinc production today goes toward use in fertilizers and health supplements, Mr. Lindsay said.
"When you learn something can be done, you have to do it. It has nothing to do with generating new demand for zinc because it's a tiny amount," said Mr. Lindsay, whose day job is as chief executive officer of Vancouver-based Teck Resources Ltd., one of the world's largest zinc producers. Teck, which started out as a zinc company, generates about 15 per cent of its revenues today from zinc, with the bulk coming from copper and coal.
"It does benefit zinc's image worldwide. So much of it is education," added Mr. Lindsay, who is now serving his fourth year of a three-year term at the IZA.
He chose to stay on a bit longer, until this fall, to help the organization further some of its projects, including the Zinc Saves Kids campaign with UNICEF. The campaign not only raises awareness of zinc deficiency, but supports zinc-supplementation programs for children in poor nations around the world.
Most recently, the IZA has made a big push into China, a country with which Teck has developed a special relationship in recent years. In 2009, the nation's sovereign-wealth fund, China Investment Corp., invested $1.5-billion in Teck for a 17-per-cent stake in the diversified miner.
Mr. Lindsay capitalized on that new connection to help the IZA broker a partnership with the Chinese government to study and promote adding more zinc to fertilizer in the country. The initiative, announced this spring, will look at ways to both increase crop yields and improve nutrition of the foods produced in China.
Today, China has just 9 per cent of the world's arable land to feed 1.3 billion people, or about 22 per cent of the global population. It's also the world's largest consumer of fertilizer, accounting for 30 per cent of global supply. However, its soil has been depleted of micronutrients such as zinc, having been overpowered over the years by macronutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potash.
The project with IZA "comes at the right time to correct zinc deficiency in Chinese soils," Xia Jingyan, director general of China's National Agro-Tech Extension Center), a division of the agriculture ministry, said in a recent statement.
"It will certainly accelerate zinc-fertilizer production and use in China."
According to a 2005 national nutrition study in China, about 40 per cent of the nation's children under age 6 suffer from zinc deficiency.
"What we are hoping is that, ultimately, governments [in China]will say, 'All fertilizers should contain zinc.'" Mr. Lindsay said.
Such a bold move would increase zinc demand by about one million tons annually, Mr. Lindsay estimates. Depending on overall market demand for zinc, that could result in increased production. Zinc inventories currently sit at about 800,000 tons in London Metal Exchange warehouses.
"That is basically where what we are doing is quite commercial for us, even though it has all of these wonderful social benefits," Mr. Lindsay said.
About 50 per cent of the 12 million tons of zinc produced each year is used for galvanizing steel. Less than 1 per cent is used in fertilizer.
Zinc is found in all parts of the body; it is a component in more than 300 enzymes and influences hormones. It helps accelerate cell division and enhances the immune system.
An estimated 2 billion people worldwide are not getting enough zinc in their diets.
About 800,000 people die annually from zinc deficiency and related disorders. About 45,000 children die each year.
Zinc is an essential micronutrient for growth, physical and neurological development of children, particularly those under age 5.
Sources: International Zinc Association, zincsaveslives.com