Hidden hunger is a serious problem in many ACP countries, where diets are lacking in essential vitamins and minerals. Researchers are breeding staple crops with the micronutrients already added. And the early signs are that both farmers and families are ready to accept them.

Whenever I see a malnourished child in an African village, questions flood my mind: Why is there not enough food? What can we do to help? But hunger is not only about not having enough to eat; it is also about what you eat. 'Hidden hunger' occurs when people suffer from micronutrient malnutrition - when they lack vitamin A, iron and zinc, which are essential for good health. Millions of Africans, typically living in rural areas, eat staple foods such as maize, cassava and sweet potato. While these fill their stomachs, they do not provide micronutrients. More nutritious foods such as vegetables, fruits, meat and dairy products, are not eaten in large enough quantities.

Using a process called biofortification, some scientists have started to breed crops that have more micronutrients in them. Put simply, plant breeders search gene banks for crop varieties that have naturally higher levels of the nutrient being targeted. These varieties are then crossed to existing high-yielding varieties. After years of cross-breeding and testing, not to mention a little luck, scientists can breed new biofortified varieties with more nutrients.

Adding vitamin A

For example, many poor people do not get enough vitamin A, with deficiencies causing blindness and death, especially in children. In parts of Uganda, nearly a third of young children suffer from this deficiency and in areas of Mozambique, more than 70% of children aged 6 months to 5 years are affected.

In both countries, scientists have succeeded in breeding several new sweet potato varieties biofortified with vitamin A. A recent study in Mozambique showed that a programme to introduce biofortified orange sweet potato resulted in improved vitamin A status among young children. This is important, because in regions of Mozambique and Uganda where vitamin A deficiency is widespread, people eat sweet potato just about every day. Capitalising on a familiar food is an ideal way to add extra nutrients to a diet.

Like most Africans, Ugandans eat white sweet potato. However, biofortified sweet potato - as foods rich in vitamin A tend to be - is orange. It is also sweeter and has a softer consistency. People tend to gravitate toward familiar foods, so introducing new ones can be a challenge. We have had to convince farmers and consumers that eating a nutritionally improved sweet potato that has a different colour, taste and consistency is better for them.

Many people are concerned that biofortified sweet potato is transgenic, which it is not. Beyond that, they have got to be persuaded that eating biofortified foods will improve their health. While many mothers have heard about vitamin A through health centres, they often do not understand why it is necessary. When we explain that orange sweet potato is a healthy choice for the family because of the vitamin A that it provides, there is a positive shift in attitude. People may be poor, but they still want to be healthy.

Adapting to local needs

Of course, in rural Africa, as anywhere else, health claims alone will not 'sell' new varieties to farmers and consumers. Farmers ask me: Will it require a different way of cultivation? Will it bring me more income? How good will it taste? In both Uganda and Mozambique, we have learned that any new sweet potato variety needs to be high- yielding and at least as drought-resistant as traditional ones. Ugandan farmers also want an early maturing variety that they can sell before the white sweet potatoes become available. So, not only can farmers benefit from increased demand for a biofortified crop, but the crop may also have other traits that provide some advantage.

Plant breeders responded to farmers in both countries by developing orange varieties to fit their requirements. They also adapted these new varieties to suit consumer tastes. As a result, biofortified sweet potato is being accepted more easily than we expected. Working with NGOs, village leaders, farmers, grandmothers and mothers, I have seen first hand that most farmers are willing to plant the sweet potato vines after learning about the health benefits.

Once we have a better understanding of how to disseminate biofortified sweet potato, we shall be able to scale up these activities and breed other biofortified crops. For example, scientists are developing high-zinc maize and high-iron beans for African countries, and high-zinc rice for South Asia. For other ACP countries, it is possible that alternative crops could be biofortified, if those crops are eaten in large enough quantities to have an impact on nutrition.

For me, perhaps the best news is that the biggest fans of biofortified orange sweet potato are children, who suffer most from vitamin A deficiency. Kids love its sweeter taste and softer consistency - and who can resist reaching for the bright orange sweet potato in the cooking pot?


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