Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Sweet potato breeding program is a win-win solution for sub-Saharan Africa

A simple but very effective expedient being developed in Uganda could save millions of children across Africa from malnutrition.
Sweet potatoes are one of the three main food crops in Uganda (along with plantain and cassava), as indeed they are they are in much of south and central Africa. But the starchy white-fleshed sweet potatoes that are usually grown in Uganda are relatively low in Vitamin A, and Vitamin A deficiency is a huge public health problem throughout sub-Saharan Africa, affecting as many as 43 million children across the continent (children affected by the condition are more likely to go blind, suffer from stunted growth, contract diseases, and to die earlier).
Earlier this month, though, Ugandan scientist Dr. Robert Mwanga received a quarter-share of the prestigious and lucrative World Food Prize - a prize worth $250,000 and awarded for "improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world" - for his work in combining local varieties of sweet potato with others from around the world, particularly the non-native orange-fleshed sweet potato (which is very high in Vitamin A), in order to build in more vitamin A and to produce a vitamin-rich breed tailored to suit local tastes and the local climate.
The new crop was developed without the need to resort to expensive and controversial genetic modification, like the ill-fated golden rice experiment in Asia. Rather, it relies on bio-fortification using only conventional breeding methods The resulting potato grows well, has high yields, and the local population has already seen its health benefits over the last few years. It is also a significantly cheaper and more practical solution to Vitamin A deficiency than the vitamin capsule supplement programs that have been attempted to date.
Win-win, I'd say.

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