Saving Lives with Sweet Potatoes

Saving Lives with Sweet Potatoes


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Orange-fleshed sweet potato (OSP) is the first biofortified crop to be released commercially. Several years ago a plant breeder in Uganda, in collaboration with an international research association, developed a new orange-colored variety of sweet potato that is loaded with beta-carotene (the reason for the orange hue), which the human body converts to Vitamin A. Much of Africa has high rates of Vitamin A deficiency—and Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of blindness. Diets deficient in vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) are a leading cause of malnutrition and death among children.

According to a report from IFPRI, lessons learned from growing OSP and getting it accepted in the marketplace can be applied to other biofortified crops, thus helping to improve the nutritional status of people in the target groups (primarily women and children). The Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement is seeking to do just that in 28 chronically food-insecure countries with large malnourished populations.

The sweet potato is the third most important crop in central and East Africa, behind cassava and corn. Naturally high in carbohydrates, it has become a staple food in the region because it requires few inputs on the farm (fertilizers and chemicals) and is less labor-intensive than other crops. But traditional white- and yellow-flesh sweet potatoes offer few micronutrients. OSP was developed to add not only critically needed Vitamin A, but also Vitamins B6 and C, along with moderate amounts of the minerals iron and zinc. That is why the ONE Campaign calls the sweet potato a “superhero in the fight against child malnutrition.” One small OSP (100-125 grams) supplies all the daily Vitamin A that a child needs.

IFPRI found that for crop biofortification to be a successful strategy to improve nutrition, it must be able to deliver nutrients at a lower cost than other means of improving nutrition (such as providing other types of nutritious food or fortifying existing foods with vitamins and minerals). It also found that education and Behavior Change Communication (BCC) were an important part of introducing OSP. BCC and branding were used to educate communities about how the orange color means these sweet potatoes provide better nutrition. There is growing evidence that BCC was helpful in improving nutrition in Bangladesh, Ghana, and elsewhere.


The farming sector needs to assume more responsibility for improving nutrition—not just for increasing yields and production. “Better nutrition through food” needs to be a core component of global agricultural research and product development, as it was with OSP. Existing frameworks like SUN and the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Plan(CAADP) can be an important means to mainstream nutrition-sensitive agricultural development programs to build successful indicators, measures, and outcomes (i.e., evidence that children are better-nourished).

Biofortification holds great promise to meet the nutrition challenges of feeding a world projected to be home to 9 billion people by the year 2050. It’s encouraging that IFPRI’s research found that the lessons learned from introducing OSP to smallholder farmers in Africa can be used with other crops.

This blog was cross-posted from Bread for the World Institute's Notes. Photos from HarvestPlus.

Photo: © Stephan Gladieu / World Bank

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