Sweet potatoes have long been regarded in America as a staple of Thanksgiving dinner, and aren’t usually thought of as part of an overall good diet. But economists believe it could be the thing that will help impoverished nations become healthier and less at risk for death by malnutrition.
Howarth Bouis of the International Food Policy Research Institute came up with an idea called biofortification, which entails adding nutrients to food biologically, when a study showed that giving a vitamin A capsule to malnourished children decreased the amount of deaths by 25%. The dramatic findings made Bouis certain that they had stumbled upon something important, but the problem of how to get the specially engineered food to the people was a tricky one; some were worried it would prove to be too expensive, while others feared no one would take to the new and different-looking foods. After nearly twenty years of work, they have now come up with several genetically engineered foods which offer more nutrients than ever before, including a “golden rice” which is chock full of vitamin A. However, the real success has been with the orange sweet potato.
The sweet potato is the perfect solution, because it’s already rich in vitamin A. No biological alterations needed. And while many African farmers have been growing them for years, they aren’t the orange ones popular in the states, but rather white or yellow ones, which lack beta carotene.
Maria Isabel Andrade has been campaigning for the orange sweet potato in Mozambique and says she’s getting the government involved in order to spread the word about the natural wonders of the vegetable.
“We are still doing this: theater in villages, singing about orange flesh sweet potato, how good it is, how you feed it to your children, and showing recipes so that they get used to it,” says Andrade.
Vitamin A deficiency affects around 250,000 children worldwide under the age of five and is one of the leading causes of blindness and premature death. In Africa, nearly one-third of all children suffer from it.