Posted on behalf of Katherine Rowland.
A variety of sweet potato, bred to contain more vitamin A, could prove a useful tool in tackling nutrient deficiency in parts of Africa, following a successful trial of the tuber among malnourished women and children in Uganda.
HarvestPlus, part of the international agricultural research organization CGIAR, cross-bred Africa’s white and yellow sweet potatoes to produce an orange-fleshed variety that is higher yielding with improved drought tolerance, and rich in beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. The researchers distributed the fortified orange sweet potato vines to more than 10,000 farming families in Uganda between 2007 and 2009, in the hope that the villagers would grow the crop and incorporate the strange-coloured sweet potato into their diets.
The results, published this week in the Journal of Nutrition, show that 61% of households grew the crops, and that the biofortified tubers replaced one-third of conventional white- and yellow-sweet-potato consumption. This substitution, the researchers say, was sufficient to ensure that a significant number of children and women obtained their daily vitamin A requirements.
Vitamin A deficiency affects as many as 250 million children worldwide and is a leading cause of preventable blindness, disease and premature death. In Africa, more than one-third of children under the age of 5 are affected. Aid organizations have programmes to deliver micronutrient tablets in several African countries, but reaching remote villages is expensive and difficult.
As an alternative, researchers have been creating varieties of high-calorie, climate-hardy crops that are rich in essential nutrients such as vitamin A, iron and zinc. Scientists are working on fortified peanuts (groundnuts) and cassava, for example, using conventional breeding techniques or genetic modification to create food crops that address nutrient deficiency in poor countries.
HarvestPlus has also distributed the biofortified orange sweet potato in Mozambique, and 2011 data show that adoption of the crop is higher than in Uganda. The organization plans to release more nutritionally enhanced varieties in the near future, including iron-biofortified beans in Rwanda and vitamin A-biofortified maize in Zambia.
This post has been corrected since publication. An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Mozambique research had yet to be published. The post also implied that the pearl millet and maize mentioned were biofortified using breeding or GM techniques. In-fact they were simply fortified with synthetic vitamins or minerals. Thanks to Yassir Islam for reporting the errors below.