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Scientists Fight Disease With Sweet Potatoes

FILE - Children are seen enjoying orange sweet potatoes. (Courtesy - HarvestPlus)
FILE - Children are seen enjoying orange sweet potatoes. (Courtesy - HarvestPlus)

Researchers have helped reduce a major health problem with a simple sweet potato.

A program that helped small-scale farmers in Mozambique grow vitamin A-rich orange-fleshed sweet potatoes cut rates of children’s diarrhea by 40 to 50 percent, according to a new study.

The authors say it is the first time a development program aimed at agricultural production has been shown to improve health as well.

Diarrheal diseases are the second most common cause of death for children under 5, according to the World Health Organization. Lack of vitamin A raises the risk of those diseases and other serious infections. Roughly 190 million preschool-age children worldwide don’t get enough vitamin A.

FILE - A kiosk promoting orange-fleshed sweet potatoes is seen in Mozambique. (Courtesy - HarvestPlus)
FILE - A kiosk promoting orange-fleshed sweet potatoes is seen in Mozambique. (Courtesy - HarvestPlus)

For decades, health officials have been delivering vitamin supplements to prevent the consequences of vitamin A deficiency. Experts say it’s an effective but temporary solution to a more fundamental problem: those affected don’t have access to the nutritious foods they need to stay healthy.

“If you can do something through agriculture to increase the amount of vitamin A in the diet, you’re in much better shape because that’s more sustainable,” said Alan de Brauw at the International Food Policy Research Institute, co-author of the new study in the journal World Development.

‘This is big’

So, de Brauw’s colleagues at the agriculture-research organization HarvestPlus launched a program in 2006 to introduce orange-fleshed sweet potatoes to 24 villages in Mozambique, where nearly 70 percent of children were vitamin A deficient.

Farmers had been planting white or yellow varieties, which have very little of the nutrient. But one small orange sweet potato provides a full day’s supply of vitamin A.

Over three years, villagers received orange sweet potato vines, plus some training and education on how to grow them and the importance of vitamin A.

At the end of the study, researchers asked them questions about food consumption and health, including whether their children had diarrhea recently.

Children had 40 percent fewer cases of diarrhea in the villages growing orange sweet potato, compared to 12 villages where they had not been introduced. Among children under 3 years old, the difference was 50 percent.

“Nobody has shown in the past that an agricultural production intervention can have any health impacts,” de Brauw said. “So, this is big.”

Experts are promoting the idea that teaching farmers how to grow more and better food is the best way to not just alleviate poverty and hunger, but also to fight disease.

“This is an area of research that’s very hot right now,” said nutrition expert and consultant Anna Herforth, who was not involved with the research. She said the study is “a well-designed way to show that link concretely - to say, look, if you produce a food and it’s available to people to eat and they like it, and they consume it, then it does good things for health.”

HarvestPlus is taking the same approach with other crops, including high vitamin A cassava in Nigeria, iron-rich millet in India, high-zinc rice in Bangladesh and more.