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SF Blog: A Sweet Story

Sweet Potatoes Help Curb Malnutrition

Oftentimes, I will choose to eat sweet potatoes with a fish sandwich. I do like the taste of the orange-colored, vitamin-A rich food item.

Now, thanks to this year’s recipients of the World Food Prize, I have a new appreciation for biofortification and this nourishing item that’s changing millions of peoples’ lives.

Maria Andrade, Howarth Bouis, Jan Low, and Robert Mwanga were awarded the 2016 World Food Prize on Thursday, among an international audience at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines.  

Three of the four laureates, through the International Potato Center (CIP), were honored for their work developing the single-most successful example of biofortification – the orange-flesh sweet potato (OFSP).

Before we go any further, let’s bring you up to speed on biofortification. It is the process of using conventional plant breeding techniques to enrich staple food crops with higher levels of vitamin A, zinc, and iron.

Maria Andrade, Jan Low, and Robert Mwanga led the effort to breed a U.S. orange sweet potato with Africa’s white sweet potato, with the hopes of transferring the vitamin-A and beta-carotene characteristics. It worked. And now millions of malnourished people are benefiting.

Although the overall goal of food scientists and researchers is to end malnutrition of 1.0 billion people by 2030, these decorated researchers are rapidly expanding their efforts to breed nutrient supplements into staple crops such as corn, wheat, and rice. In fact, through the use of Accelerated Breeding Scheme (ABS), researchers have discovered ways to boost nutritional levels of iron and zinc in 12 crops. Rice, whea,t and corn are also being used in the biofortification process.

The main takeaway is not the expansion of your biology vocabulary. Instead, the message is more about the fact that the future of agriculture is key in helping end malnutrition by 2030. To date, 20.0 million malnourished people have been reached.

To date, 12 crops with 150 different biofortified varieties have been developed in 30 countries.

And great strides continue to be made. For instance, nearly a decade ago, when Maria Andrade attempted to get farmers in her home country of Mozambique, Africa, to plant sweet potatoes, the crop had a stigma of being the “poor people’s food.” But, now, because of biofortification highlighting the nutritional benefits, the southeastern African country’s government has made it a major crop to support.

This week in Iowa, Andrade was recognized for her efforts. “More research, more processing, and more policy is needed in helping combat malnutrition,” she says.   

While working for CIP, Maria Andrade, Jan Low, and Robert Mwanga undertook a project to develop disease-resistant, drought-tolerant, high-yielding varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potato that can flourish in the variable soils and climatic conditions found in Sub-Sarahan Africa in an effort to counter the effects of vitamin A-deficiency, which contributes to high rates of blindness, immune system disorders, and premature death in children and pregnant women in Africa, according to a World Food Prize press release.

Bouis, the founder of HarvestPlus at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), over a 25-year period pioneered the implementation of a multi-institutional approach to biofortification as a global plant-breeding strategy. As a result of his leadership, crops such as iron- and zinc-fortified beans, rice, wheat, and pearl millet, along with vitamin A-enriched cassava, maize, and OFSP are being tested or released in over 40 countries, according to a WFP release.

Bouis told Agriculture.com that a beta-carotene-filled corn variety has been found in Thailand. So, that variety is now being bred with Africa’s white corn. “The hope is that one day, in Africa, grandkids will be saying that there used to be white maize and white potatoes,” Bouis says. “We want it to be well known that orange varieties of these crops are healthier.”

Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize, summed up why these researchers should be lifted up by explaining their impact on millions of people.

“At a time when malnutrition, stunting, and early childhood death remain a scourge for millions on our planet, the four 2016 World Food Prize Laureates have uplifted the health and well-being of more than 10 million persons through the biofortication of staple crops, particularly the vitamin-fortified orange-fleshed sweet potato,” Ambassador Quinn stated in a press release. “They have truly fulfilled the dictum attributed to Hippocrates from almost 2,400 years ago – to "Let food be thy medicine.”

The efforts of our 2016 World Food Prize Laureates have positively impacted over 10 million people through biofortified crops, with the potential of impacting and enhancing the nutrition and health of several hundred million more in the coming decades.

While it’s processed into flour as a cooking ingredient in homes in sub-Saharan Africa, I can smile wide knowing millions of needy people are sharing the same healthy culinary enjoyment of sweet potatoes.

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