For a rural coffee grower in Colombia, rising global coffee prices should be nothing but good news. Grow more beans, make more money. So Grant Miller, a health economist at Stanford University, was surprised to discover what else higher prices herald: Sicker kids. It turns out that “child mortality rates go up when prices go up,” says Miller. The opposite is also true: Child mortality decreases—fewer infants and children die—when prices slump.

Miller and his coauthor examined average annual...

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