A new campaign by HarvestPlus in Mozambique and Uganda aims to reduce vitamin A deficiency among pregnant women and children by a simple switch to orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which are higher in vitamin A than the commonly used white- or yellow-fleshed varieties. Vitamin A deficiency is prevalent among pregnant women and children in developing countries and is responsible for 6% of all deaths of children under 5 and 500,000 cases of child blindness every year. A previous study using capsule supplements of vitamin A every six months reduced deaths among malnourished children by 25%.
Because providing supplements to people in remote areas can be very expensive, HarvestPlus began to look into biofortification, a means of providing essential micronutrients, such as vitamin A, zinc, and iron, through the staple foods that make up much of the poor’s diets in the developing world. The organization began encouraging farmers to grow the orange varieties in 2007.The campaign was highly successful, with over 60% of farmers in the campaign area growing orange sweet potatoes by 2009.
In Mozambique, sweet potatoes became the third most important food in young children’s diets, after maize and rice. In both regions, daily vitamin A intake among children 6 to 35 months and women increased dramatically compared to a control. In Uganda, inadequate vitamin A intake decreased from 50% to 12% among children 12 to 35 months who were no longer breastfeeding, a group a high risk of vitamin A deficiency.
Harvest Plus’s future projects to improve micronutrient intake include introducing pearl millet enriched with iron in India and wheat and rice enriched with zinc to Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Another biofortification effort, The Golden Rice Project, is developing a variety of rice rich in vitamin A.