Boosting abilities to develop nutritious sweetpotatoes for Central Americans

An estimated two billion people suffer undernourishment, or micronutrient deficiencies, which is why CGIAR centers have partnered with national agricultural programs across the globe on biofortification – increasing the vitamin and mineral content of staple crops through breeding.

An example is the International Potato Center’s (CIP) past decade of work developing and promoting biofortified orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes to combat one of the most pernicious forms of undernutrition – vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Vitamin A deficiency not only weakens young children’s immune systems, increasing their risk of death from infections or common diseases, it is also a leading cause of preventable blindness, resulting in an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 children going blind each year. Yet one small orange-fleshed sweetpotato can supply the daily vitamin A needs of a preschool-aged child.

Workshop participants and instructors.

Sweetpotato is also highly productive, able to grow on marginal land, and is resilient, making it an excellent food security crop in a climate changing world. CIP has thus partnered with government programs in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to develop robust and resilient orange-fleshed sweetpotato varieties and get planting material for them to farmers and families at risk of undernutrition.

A recent workshop for lab technicians from the national agricultural research institutes of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras on procedures for analyzing the nutritional content of sweetpotatoes was part of a broader effort to use biofortification to reduce vitamin A deficiency and other types of undernutrition in Central America. The United Nations reported that Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) accounted for 7.4 percent of global undernourishment in 2021, and the World Food Programme (WFP) has alerted that food insecurity affects approximately 9.7 million people in Central America, where the number is rising due to a mix of increasingly intense droughts and high rainfall during the hurricane season – weather extremes linked to climate change.

Guatemala and Honduras are among the five LAC countries with the highest prevalence of undernourishment.

The course was the last segment of a three-year training program launched in 2020 with funding from the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) and coordinated by the WFP Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, in collaboration with International Center for Tropical Agriculture and HarvestPlus LAC. The program included courses on breeding climate-resilient, pro-vitamin-A sweetpotatoes, helping farmers who adopt them access new markets, and communicating their importance to varied audiences.

“I hope these courses will lead to increased cultivation and consumption of biofortified sweetpotato and the creation of sustainable value chains,” says CIP scientist Bettina Heider, who organized the program. “The ultimate goals are to reduce malnutrition in children and women of reproductive age and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.”

Sharing technical knowledge

Workshop participants and instructors.

According to biologist and nutritionist Gabriela Burgos, CIP scientists spent years adapting technologies to evaluate the nutritional value of sweetpotatoes and potatoes, which facilitates the process of breeding and selecting biofortified varieties.

“For the lab technicians who led this workshop, it was a pleasure to teach these techniques to government staff who are interested and who we know will share that knowledge with colleagues in their respective countries,” she says.

According to Eric Aguilar, food technology program coordinator at Guatemala’s Agricultural Science and Technology Institute (ICTA), ICTA doesn’t currently have the capacity to analyze nutritional content, but plans to establish a lab for nutritional analysis, which the workshop has prepared him for.

As Gracia de Chavez, who heads the agricultural chemistry lab at El Salvador’s National Center for Agricultural and Forestry Technology (CENTA), observes: “I’ve learned to do analyses that we haven’t done at CENTA and I’m going to teach them to my colleagues.”

Reducing malnutrition

Narciso Meza, head of the Honduran Directorate of Agriculture and Forestry Technology’s (DICTA) national research program, explains that CIP has sent biofortified sweetpotatoes and potatoes to DICTA for use in breeding or evaluation, and DICTA will release two orange-fleshed sweetpotato varieties selected from those shipments this year. He adds that DICTA has released biofortified varieties of other crops from breeding material provided by CGIAR Centers.

Lupita Tello of ICTA with biofortified sweetpotatoes.

“Cooperation with CGIAR is very valuable for our organizations. Our goal used to be to develop high-yielding varieties, but nowadays we’re more focused on resilience and nutrition, to help smallholder farmers overcome the challenges of climate change and malnutrition,” Meza says.

Both ICTA and CENTA have already released biofortified orange-fleshed sweetpotato varieties, in 2017 and 2019 respectively, two of which are sold in Guatemala’s largest supermarkets.

According to Lupita Tello, ICTA communications coordinator, “The biofortified varieties are creating great opportunities for farmers to produce more nutritious food to consume and to sell to cover other family needs. They are contributing to reducing food insecurity and malnutrition in our country.”

Heider notes that while COVID-19 forced CIP to change the training program’s schedule and teach most courses online, the program was nonetheless successful. “An advantage of the virtual courses is that all sessions are recorded, so participants can review the information anytime,” she says.

“I hope we can run more of these courses. Knowledge transfer and training are powerful means to impact, and national agricultural research systems are extremely important partners for reaching farmers, policy makers and the broader public, and for achieving impact on a national and farm household level,” says Heider.