Orange-fleshed sweet potato research takes top agricultural award

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The four World Food Prize winners will be receiving recognition for their work in biofortification tonight at the Iowa capitol (Photo by Kathryn Cawdrey)

By Maria Kalaitzandonakes

DES MOINES, Iowa — The women of the village were dressed in orange, dancing and singing “This is the sweet that gives health,” Maria Andrade said of the International Potato Center’s vitamin A-packed, orange fleshed sweet potato.

Andrade, Howarth Bouis, Jan Low and Robert Mwanga will be honored with this year’s World Food Prize for their work in biofortification of at a Iowa’s state capitol tonight. The staple crops the laureates have worked on will reduce micronutrient deficiencies around the world.

Andrade and Mwanga are both plant scientists in Mozambique and Uganda, who worked to breed the enriched orange sweet potato. The sweet potato variety provides up to 100 percent of vitamin A needs and increases farmers yields by about 15 percent. Vitamin A deficiency weakens immunity, can lead to blindness and can cause death.

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The four World Food Prize laureates speak about biofortified staple crops at the Borlaug Dialogues in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Sarah Goellner)

Mwanga said the orange-fleshed sweet potato has come a long way since his university days. When he was stationed at a research plot in Uganda many crops were stolen, though sweet potatoes would only get stolen once. They were too watery and soft for the local palate. Mwanga and Andrade worked with many scientists to accelerate the breeding process and develop the desired product.

Low focused on the nutrition studies and planning programs to convince farmers to plant the unknown variety. “Branding,” she said pointing  to her orange outfit, jewelry and notebook.

When Low first started on the orange-fleshed sweet potato project, she thought the color might be a detriment to its implementation. But she made the color work for them. Their orange message is emblazoned on vehicle and market stalls.

“People love the orange color now,” she said. The center linked the color with the idea of good health.

Bouis is the founder of HarvestPlus and has led the charge to enrich many staple crops: including iron and zinc fortified beans, rice, wheat and pearl millet and vitamin A-enriched cassava, maize and sweet potato. For much of his career, Bouis said, he was told that increasing production of staple crops were the rid the world of hunger and malnutrition.

Today, many, including these four laureates, are focusing on the quality and nutrition of the world’s daily staples.

Through the combined efforts of these four, over 10 million people are now positively impacted by biofortified crops, with a potential of several hundred million more having their nutrition and health enhanced in the coming decades, according to the World Food Prize.

This evening’s ceremony will mark the 30th World Food Prize awarded. The award was established by agricultural advocate and Nobel Prize winner, Norman Borlaug. The winners will also receive 250,000 dollars, split equally.

The group is working to make resilient, high yielding biofortified crops that can hold up to increasingly volatile weather and will be highly adopted by farmers.

Orange, is in.

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