How Scientists Enriched Sweet Potatoes to Improve the Health of Millions
Four scientists have been awarded the 2016 World Food Prize for their work to end malnutrition by enriching foods.
The World Food Prize Foundation honored the four laureates for the 2016 prize this month after announcing their win in late June.
Three of the winners – Drs. Maria Andrade, Robert Mwanga and Jan Low, who all belong to the CGIAR International Potato Center — are recognized for their work developing an orange-fleshed sweet potato that is high in vitamin A.
The fourth winner, Dr. Howard Bouis, is recognized for over 25 years of work to ensure that the process of “biofortification” plays its part in improving the health of the world’s poorest people.
Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, President of the World Food Prize, explained:
The impact of the work of all four winners will be felt around the globe, but particularly in sub Saharan Africa. It is particularly poignant that among our 2016 recipients are two African scientists who are working on solutions to tackle malnutrition in Africa, for Africa.
Together, it is believed that the four laureates have helped to improve the lives of over 10 million people through use of biofortification.
To understand how food scientists achieved this, we first have to examine the problem they aimed to solve — in this case, the vitamin A deficiency epidemic.
A massive health problem that needs several solutions
Vitamin A deficiency is a serious problem in many parts of the so-called developing world where malnutrition is an issue. According to the World Health Organization, vitamin A deficiency impacts over half of all countries and is especially prevalent in Africa and South-East Asia.
Vitamin A deficiency remains the leading cause of preventable blindness in children, and it can cause a greater susceptibility to other illnesses. A lack of vitamin A can also lead to night blindness in pregnant women, as well as other serious issues for both mother and child.
Short-term solutions are to provide vitamin A supplements to those with chronic vitamin A deficiency, as well as to help new mothers to breastfeed — a practice that can pass on essential vitamin A to children.
However, more long-term solutions have relied on helping people in impoverished countries grow nutrient-dense foods that contain this vital vitamin. Food fortification can help continue the work done by early supplementation and enable older children to keep up their vitamin A intake.
For example, in Guatemala fortified sugar has succeeded in improving vitamin A levels in the general population. Obviously sugar fortification comes with some drawbacks, but a balanced diet can mitigate any health risks that might emerge from reliance on sugar in this way.
Similarly the nation of Uganda, among other countries, is employing sugar and cooking oil fortification.
But developing staple foods that are also fortified with vitamins and minerals has proved an important long-term strategy — and that’s precisely what the laureates examined in this case.
Biofortification: How It Works
Below is a video featuring Howard Bouis, one of the award-winning scientists, explaining exactly how biofortification works:
The basic premise is a familiar one to most breeders. The idea is to cross a nutrient-dense staple food that contains a desired trait — in this case, high vitamin A content — with a high-yielding variety of that same staple to produce a foodstuff that is rich in the given nutrient categories.
When Bouis and others championed the idea in the 1990s, several health experts were not overly convinced. They believed that the payoff would be too small and the resulting impact not worth the monetary investment. However, the technique has proved highly successful for treating childhood vitamin A, zinc and iron deficiencies, among others — and especially when teamed with other approaches, like sugar fortification.
Will this process end global malnutrition?
Certainly not on its own, but as these laureates have demonstrated, by working with local communities, biofortification offers one solution to malnutrition. The biofortification process is both cheap and empowering for underprivileged nations, in that it gives them the power to help themselves.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.