The orange revolution: feeding the world one sweet potato at a time

By Jieyang Zheng and Alexa Ahern

DES MOINES, Iowa — Sweet potatoes have a secret. They aren’t all sugary holiday dishes.

The orange-fleshed sweet potatoes that are ubiquitous on Thanksgiving tables are rich in Vitamin A. However, their paler cousin, the white-fleshed sweet potato, is not.

Only the less nutritional white varieties are available in some parts of the world. In eastern and southern African countries, where malnutrition is a serious health threat, Vitamin A deficiency can cause blindness, stunting and sometimes death.

The orange variety could change that, said three scientists from the International Potato Center at the World Food Prize Friday at the Marriott Downtown Hotel.

According to the scientists — Jan Low, principal scientist; Robert O. M. Mwanga, sweet potato breeder; and Maria Andrade, senior sweet potato breeder — other characteristics make orange-fleshed sweet potatoes perfect for lifting some African communities out of malnutrition:

  • The harvest cycle of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes is relatively short at three months.
  • It is drought tolerant.
  • It can be a source of crucial income during dry season.
  • Children like the texture better.
  • Orange-fleshed varieties can grow in difficult terrain.

However, the sweet potato vines can only be stored for up to seven days, unlike other staples and breeding new varieties can take up to eight years.

The International Potato Center is working to make more varieties that can adapt to various soil and climate conditions.

In Ethiopia, the International Potato Center introduced the first variety of sweet potato that can be grown on the rocky, sandy terrain of the east-African country.

By 2020, the center hopes that 10 million households will be using orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. Currently, 1.9 million have access to the hunger-curing, vitamin-rich root vegetable.

Beyond nutrition, sweet potatoes provide financial security.

“Potatoes are income for families to pay for school books and to send their children to school,” Andrade said.

They really are a super food.

 

 

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