It started as one of Africa's cheapest crops. With some selective breeding, it's become a lifesaver.

For most of us, sweet potatoes can be two things: a dessert or a side. For some kids, though, they could be a lifeline.

We all know that hunger is a big problem in Africa. Some sources say over 200 million people there are hungry or undernourished.

But often the answer isn't just getting food to those in need — it's getting them the right kinds of food.


Lots of rice, beans, and corn. Not a lot of nutrients. Photo by Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images.

Jane Howard of the World Food Programme told the BBC, "There are certainly extreme circumstances where children starve to death. ... But the truth is that the vast majority of those numbers that we're talking about are children who, because they haven't had the right nutrition in the very earliest parts of their lives, are really very susceptible to infectious diseases."

That's where the sweet potato comes in.

Poor families in Africa often have access to cheap crops, but they lack important micronutrients like Vitamin A.

In sub-Saharan African countries like Uganda and Ethiopia, it's not too hard to get foods like rice and corn. And while those crops might be good for a full belly, they're far too light on critical micronutrients.

That's why about 250 million preschool-age children suffer from a Vitamin A deficiency, many of them in Africa and Southeast Asia.

Vitamin A deficiency, or VAD, sounds pretty tame compared to AIDS or malaria, but don't let the name fool you. It can cause growth issues in kids, decreased immunity to infections, and even blindness, which, in children, often results in death.

With a little help from science, the sweet potato is becoming an unlikely hero in the fight against Vitamin A deficiency.

They don't look like much, but they hold a ton of potential. Photo by Wally Hartshorn/Flickr.

Many years ago, researchers with the United Nations found that if they could give kids in Africa a Vitamin A capsule even just once every six months, they could cut the mortality rate for those kids by 25%. That's huge.

But it would be even bigger if they could find a way to give Africans in poverty a sustainable, inexpensive source of Vitamin A year round that they could grow and trade themselves.

That's where the idea of tackling the problem with "biofortification" came from — taking those cheap local crops and selectively breeding them to carry more nutrients.

Some of the most exciting progress so far comes in the form of ... that's right ... the sweet potato. Best known for being the only food that can be eaten as both a pie and a fry, the orange sweet potatoes we enjoy here in the U.S. are already high in beta carotene (which our body turns into Vitamin A). The ones that grow in Africa, while popular and allegedly delicious, aren't.

Until now.

Scientists have been homing in on the perfect breed of sweet potato: great flavor, easy growing, and plenty of Vitamin A.

Sweet potatoes can be turned into all kinds of yummy, Vitamin-A rich dishes. Photo by Avital Pinnick/Flickr.

Recently, Sunette Laurie, a senior researcher with the Agricultural Research Council, published a study detailing her team's efforts to create the perfect sweet potato.

Step one is ratcheting up the beta carotene levels. But to have the kind of impact they're imagining, Laurie's team needs a strain of sweet potato that's really easy to plant and grow and has a texture and flavor that Africans really dig.

She thinks they've got a couple of promising options, both with exotic-sounding names like "Impilo" and "Purple Sunset," and now she's working with local officials to get these fortified sweet potatoes in the hands of the community so they can start saving lives, whether the potatoes be casseroled, muffined, or simply steamed to taste.

Save room on that plate, though, for some Golden Rice, some Miraculous Maize, and a Super Banana.

While Laurie's team is hard at work building a better sweet potato, other research teams around the world are tinkering with the rest of Africa's local, nutrient-deficient crops.

The Golden Rice Project just got an award from the White House for its biofortified rice, while a team at the Queensland University of Technology is trying out genetically enhanced bananas in Uganda with the hopes of spreading them across the continent soon. There's even special "orange maize" being grown in Zambia with supercharged levels of Vitamin A.

The more options malnourished kids all over the world have for getting access to nutrients, the better. What's especially cool about these biofortified crops is that, in time, they'll become a natural part of the local food trade and easily available to nearly everyone.

Maybe then we can "mash" VAD into obscurity, for good.

Correction: This article originally stated that the sweet potatoes are genetically engineered. They're not. They are conventionally bred by selective breeding of crops. Thanks to Vidushi Sinha at HarvestPlus for the correction.

True

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday are teaming up to find the people who lead with love everyday.

Know someone in your neighborhood who's known for their optimistic attitude, commitment to bettering their community and always leading with love? Tell us about them for the chance to win a $2,000 grant to keep doing good in their community.

Nomination ends November 22, 2020

via Brittany Kinley / Facebook

Brittany Kinley, a mother from Mansfield, Texas, had a hilarious mom fail her and she's chalking it up to being just another crazy thing that happened in 2020.

When Kinley filled out the order form for her son Mason's kindergarten class pictures, there was an option to have his name engraved into the photos. But Kinley wasn't interested in having her son's name on the photos so she wrote "I DON'T WANT THIS" on the box.

Well, it appears as though she should have left the box blank because the computer or incredibly literal human that designed the photographs wrote "I DON'T WANT THIS" where mason's name should be.

Keep Reading Show less
True

A lot of people here are like family to me," Michelle says about Bread for the City — a community nonprofit located in Washington DC that provides local residents with food, clothing, health care, social advocacy, and legal services. And since the pandemic began, the need to support organizations like Bread for the City is greater than ever, which is why Amazon is Delivering Smiles to local charities across the country this holiday season.

Watch the full story:

Amazon is giving back by fulfilling hundreds of AmazonSmile Charity Lists, and donating essential pantry and food items to help organizations like Bread for the City provide to those disproportionately impacted this year.

Visit AmazonSmile Charity Lists to donate directly to a local charity in your community, or simply shop smile.amazon.com and Amazon will donate a portion of the purchase price of eligible products to your charity of choice.
via Witty Buttons / Twitter

Back in 2017, when white supremacist Richard Spencer was socked in the face by someone wearing all black at Trump's inauguration, it launched an online debate, "Is it OK to punch a Nazi?"

The essential nature of the debate was whether it was acceptable for people to act violently towards someone with repugnant reviews, even if they were being peaceful. Some suggested people should confront them peacefully by engaging in a debate or at least make them feel uncomfortable being Nazi in public.

Keep Reading Show less
via UDOT / Facebook

In December 2018, The Utah Department of Transportation opened the largest wildlife overpass in the state, spanning 320 by 50 feet across all six lanes of Interstate 80.

Its construction was intended to make traveling through the I-80 corridor in Summit County safer for motorists and the local wildlife.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that there were over 100 animal incidents on the interstate since 2016, giving the stretch of highway the unfortunate nickname of "Slaughter Row."

Keep Reading Show less