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Golden sweet potato shows success

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.

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    Yassir Islam said:

    Thank you for drawing attention to this research. A few corrections. The Mozambique data was published last year in the British Journal of Nutrition (see http://bit.ly/mozosp). Also, fortification is being confused with biofortification. The former refers to the process of adding synthetic vitamin and minerals to processed foods such as flour. The latter refers to the process of crop plants naturally uploading these nutrients from the soil, or synthesizing them, so that they are available when the crops are harvested and eaten. To that end, your links to pearl millet and maize refer to fortification, while your links to peanuts and cassava are to biofortified crops. Both approaches are necessary to improve nutrition and public health and complement each other. Also,conventionally-bred vitamin A cassava that can provide up to 25% of daily vitamin A needs for women was released in Nigeria in December 2011. Varieties that can provide up to 50% of daily vitamin A needs are in the pipeline (see http://bit.ly/LqBE7X).

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    amalina munira said:

    brilliant idea because it is very noble to help those who are in need..

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