Scientists honoured for promoting global nutrition security

Top Scientist Dr Robert Mwanga of Uganda doing what he loves. Photo Courtesy
Top Scientist Dr Robert Mwanga of Uganda doing what he loves. Photo Courtesy

The World Food Prize 2016, which has been awarded since 1986, went to three scientists from the International Potato Centre (CIP), headquartered in Lima, Peru.

The three CIP Scientists, Dr Jan Low (Kenya, Dr Maria Andrade (Mozambique) and Dr Robert Mwanga (Uganda) as well as Dr Howarth Bouis of Harvest Plus (USA) were recognized for their joint success in improving nutrition and health by means of biofortified crops.

The news was released in June at the headquarters office of the Department of State of the United States in Washington DC.  They were later honoured and celebrated on July 8, 2016 at CIP within International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Nairobi, Kenya.

Andrade, Mwanga and Low have been working together for the past 15 years on the orange-fleshed sweet-potato with high vitamin A content.

They were honoured for their research work applied to improve sweet-potato varieties and the use of this crop in local diets in order to improve nutrition and thereby health and food security for countries of Africa.

Currently, most African countries are now planting and consuming this nutritionally fortified food, with high nutrition and health indices, especially to children under five years old and pregnant women.

According to the three scientists now renowned as World Food Prize Laureates, the global recognition of their efforts, gives them a challenge to commit themselves to continue working for the smallholder farmers and vulnerable populations.

Through the development of the potato and sweet-potato sector in Peru and throughout the world, the three Laureates attributed it to perseverance, focus and unity in their research work.

The scientists say conservation and value enhancement of sweet-potato brings great biodiversity to the generation of innovations to contribute to food and nutrition security.

The Laureates stated “it is most important especially to the world that is faced with challenges of climate change”.

Their aim is to see the promotion of sustainable agriculture for farmers to practice responsible management of natural resources and the environment.

Addressing journalists at CIP, Nairobi Kenya, Low said potato is among orphan crops that have not been recognized by Africa governments yet it’s a stable crop rich in Vitamin A and responsible for good eye sight.

Low challenged Africa governments to take sweet-potato as a serious crop that can help check food security and the same time improve health of children below five years and pregnant mothers.

“For a long time, sweet-potato has never been seen as foods with no nutritional value and hence the reason why smallholder farmers are not funded like those growing other crops,” said Low. She noted: “It is high time Africa governments take this crop seriously and make it one of the cash crops to get funding.”

Low claimed the most popular sweet-potato variety is white fleshed which is not liked by majority especially children.

However, with the introduction of the yellow and orange fleshed variety, many children now eat it and it helps in reducing eye blindness.

Explained Low: “Sweet-potato contains beta-carotene and other carotenoid which the human body converts into vitamin A (retinol) in the body.” She explained: “Vitamin A from plant foods is called provitamin A (mostly beta-carotene) found in orange and yellow fleshed sweet-potato.”

Low said they have trained Jane Anyango from Kibera who is now helping CIP to train other women in rural areas in Kisumu County to grow the crop.

She said farming the crop has helped many educate their children apart from providing nutritional food value to families.

Other plants that contain vitamin A are palm oil, orange fruits such as mango, papaya and vegetables such as pumpkin, carrots, green leafy vegetables such spinach, sweet-potato and kale.

Vitamin A deficiency occurring in pregnant women can lead to night blindness, miscarriage, early arrival of the baby, low birth weight and increased risk of death of the mother.

The prevalence of vitamin A deficiency in a population can be determined by the prevalence of night blindness and other signs of eye problems and by testing blood or breast milk samples to assess level of vitamin A.

Andrade said breeding sweet-potato in Mozambique began in 1997 and then later introduced to farmers to diversify their agricultural food production in terms of feeding and its taste to the people.

She revealed after it got to the market, farmers especially women and young scientists were trained on its value chain to diversify its use and make it more marketable.

“Today in Mozambique, yellow and orange-fleshed sweet-potato are grown everywhere both by smallholder farmers and large scale farmers. The Government has put in a lot of effort to support the programme,” Andrade confirmed.

According to Andrade, Mozambique’s ministries of commerce and agriculture consider sweet-potato as one among seven crops in the country as major ones hence it’s recognized as cash crop.

She explained because of that, many farmers have ventured into growing it with government support.

“In Mozambique the coloured sweet-potato purée is used for various purposes such as making cakes, biscuits, chapatti, bread among other cookies sold in supermarkets,” said Andrade.

However, Mwanga from Uganda said breeding of coloured sweet-potato began in 1995 with numerous challenges. He revealed vitamin A deficiency prevalence in Uganda is 32 percent which is a severe level.

“At least 51 children under five years old die every month in Uganda of diseases related to deficiency in vitamin A. There is a prize competition targeting children to help prevent early blindness causing their death in three months,” Mwanga disclosed.

He regretted that in Uganda, children, lactating mothers and pregnant women are the most vulnerable by vitamin A deficiency.

The introduction of coloured sweet-potato has attracted many households who now use it as part of their meals.

Mwanga revealed that World Bank donated US$27million to Uganda government through the ministries of health, education and agriculture for treatment, to educate school children, parents and fund farmers.

Scientists at CIP are currently exploring the potential cancer preventing properties of purple fleshed sweet-potato.

They argue anthocyanins that account for the purple pigmentation in this variety are powerful antioxidants and have good bioavailability, meaning they are easily absorbed by the human body.

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