Investing in sweetpotato diversity for nutrition and food security

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November 7, 2012 By: cip_admin

While in the United States the sweetpotato is often just a Thanksgiving side dish, in Africa and Asia, where Vitamin A deficiency is prevalent, it is helping to reduce the risk of blindness and even death. In addition to being a healthy food, the sweetpotato is valuable as a food security crop. It grows in marginal conditions, requiring little labor and few chemical fertilizers. In short, it is a cheap, nutritious solution for farmers that need to grow more food on less area for rapidly multiplying populations.

Leveraging the value of this versatile crop, the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) has granted the International Potato Center (CIP) US$ 1 million for five years to support, maintain, conserve, and make available sweet potato varieties. It is an “in perpetuity” grant, which will automatically renew every five years to ensure the sweet potato collection is maintained and conserved for future generations.

CIP’s extensive sweetpotato collection contains nearly 8,000 sweetpotato accessions — among which 4,615 are native, 1,984 are improved and 1,178 wild — from all over the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. The importance of the collection is to conserve living samples to ensure that the genetic resources that underpin our food supply are both secure in the long term and available for use by farmers, plant breeders, and researchers. CIP’s genebank holds more than 80% of the world’s sweetpotato cultivars. This genetic diversity provides the arsenal for scientists to help the crop adapt to changing environments: the pressures of climate change and threats from pests and disease.

Sweetpotato gives more edible energy per hectare per day than wheat, rice, or cassava. Its ability to produce better yields in poor conditions with less labor makes sweetpotato particularly suitable as a crop for households threatened by civil disorder, migration, or diseases such as AIDS. The leaves and shoots are edible, and a good source of vitamins A, C and B (riboflavin). The roots and vines are also used as healthy animal feed.

Orange-fleshed sweet potato is an important source of beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A). Just 125g of fresh roots from most orange-fleshed varieties contain enough beta-carotene to provide the daily pro-vitamin A needs of a preschooler. This is particularly important in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia where vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of blindness, disease, and premature death among children under five and pregnant women. CIP has developed a color chart, which can be used to easily identify levels of beta-carotene in sweet potato roots based on their flesh color. Purple-fleshed varieties are packed with anti-oxidants, while white-fleshed varieties are ideal for processing. Sweetpotato also provides inexpensive, high-protein fodder for animals.

First domesticated more than 5,000 years ago in Latin America, sweetpotato is grown in more developing countries than any other root crop. It is one of the world’s most important food crops in terms of human consumption, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Despite its name, sweetpotato is not related to the potato. It is a root, not a tuber, and belongs to the morning-glory family. Many parts of the plant are edible, including leaves, roots, and vines, and varieties exist with a wide range of skin and flesh color, from white to yellow-orange and deep purple.