Ever heard someone tell you, “there are starving children in Africa” when you don’t eat your plate clean? Well next time correct them with, “there are malnourished children in Africa.” The 2010 Global Hunger Index released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) indicates that world hunger is at a “serious level” with sub-Saharan Africa categorized as “alarming.”
Nicholas Kristof states in a recent column, “researchers are finding that the biggest reason people die of malnutrition is simply lack of micronutrients.” Malnourished children often lack zinc, iron, and vitamin A. Zinc prevents diarrhea and the deficiency is the cause of 800,000 deaths a year. Iron deficiencies can result in premature childbirth, maternal mortality, and problems in child development. Vitamin A deficiency is estimated to cause blindness in 500,000 children annually; 70% of those children die within a year of losing their sight. In addition to blindness, the deficiency can destroy the immune system and increase the risk of life threatening illnesses like malaria and the measles. In a broader geographical view, the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that about 140 million children in Africa and the Southeast Asia suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Never heard of a vitamin A deficiency? That is because the American diet is made up fortified foods that are packed with vitamin A and every other nutrient found in a Centrum capsule.
Currently, UNICEF and Helen Keller International has tried distributing vitamin A capsules and iron and zinc supplements in developing countries, but with the difficulty in reaching remote areas, this project became too costly. The solution? Sweet potatoes! Yes, the classic Thanksgiving side dish.
Orange sweet potatoes are full of beta carotene, which is a nutrient that the body transforms into vitamin A. Africans consume significant amounts of sweet potatoes, but African sweet potatoes are a white color lacking the key ingredient, vitamin A. But not to worry, through the process of bioforticifcation, or combining agriculture with nutrition, scientists have crossbred orange sweet potatoes with African sweet potatoes. Today, over 17,000 Ugandan and Mozambique families are growing these vitamin enriched orange sweet potatoes.
The sweet potatoes are not the first and only crop that organizations like HarvestPlus are growing. “The crops we’ve worked on since 2003 are those eaten daily by the poor in much of Africa and South Asia,” states Dr. Howarth Bouis, director of HarvestPlus. Plans for future breeding methods are underway and according to InformaWorld, the plans are to “concentrate on higher levels of total carotenoids and stable high yields, and in addition, on tolerance to drought”
These plans kill two birds with one stone: provide agribusiness opportunities and improve nutrition in Africa and Southeast Asia.