A revved-up sweet potato engineered to contain more vitamin A is a promising new tool in the fight against malnutrition in Africa.

Nature writes that HarvestPlus, which is funded by the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), cross-bred Africa's white and yellow sweet potatoes to create an orange-toned variety rich in beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A in the human body. The potato is also more tolerant to drought that either of its genetic parents.

Between 2007 and 2009, HarvestPlus researchers distributed orange sweet potato vines to more than 10,000 farming families in Uganda. Results published last week in the Journal of Nutrition showed that 60 percent of those households grew the crop, and the vitamin A-rich tubers replaced a third of conventional white and yellow sweet potato consumption to excellent effect.

According to the study's abstract:

Introduction of OSP (orange sweet potato) to Ugandan farming households increased vitamin A intakes among children and women and was associated with improved vitamin A status among children.

On its website, HarvestPlus explains the importance of the breakthrough, stressing that vitamin A deficiency is a major public health issue in poor countries that results in more than 600,000 deaths a year among children under the age of five. In Africa, an estimated 42 percent of children in that demographic suffer from the deficiency. Uganda especially is a problematic area.

Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness, compromised immune systems and even death. HarvestPlus notes that up to 500,000 preschool children go blind from lack of vitamin A every year, two thirds of which die within months of losing their sight.

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