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November 28, 2011

Preserving the genetic riches of the sweet potato - forever

Sweet potato, one of the world's most important and versatile food crops, is consumed widely in many African countries. Farmers produce about 12 million tons of sweet potatoes annually in Africa alone, where the vegetable is a staple food in much of Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania.

To make sure that highly productive and nutritious varieties are available for posterity, the Global Crop Diversity Trust is providing an ongoing grant to the International Potato Center (CIP). CIP's extensive collection contains 80 percent of the world's sweet potato cultivars – more than 7,777 accessions from all over the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Pacific. The grant, U.S.$1 million over five years, will automatically renew every five years to ensure that this critical genetic resource is maintained, conserved and accessible for all future generations.

With this grant, the Trust is now providing in-perpetuity funding to 17 major food crops: rice, cassava, wheat, barley, faba bean, pearl millet, maize, forages, banana edible aroids, grass pea, sorghum, yam, chick pea and lentil. Annual in-perpetuity grants giving for the maintenance and conservation of food crops by the Trust has totaled more than U.S.$2.3 million in 2011.

Sweet potatoes grow in marginal conditions, requiring little labor and chemical fertilizers. They produce more edible energy per hectare per day than wheat, rice or cassava. They also provide inexpensive, high-protein fodder for animals. It is a cheap solution for developing countries needing to grow more food on less area for expanding populations.

In addition to being productive, sweet potatoes are one of the world's most nutritious staple crops. They are rich in carbohydrates, fiber and micronutrients. The leaves and shoots, which are also edible, are good sources of vitamin A (beta-carotene), C and B (riboflavin).

Recent research has shown that dissemination of orange-fleshed sweet potato (OSP) is an effective way to prevent vitamin A deficiency. This is particularly important in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia where vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of blindness, disease and premature death among children under five and pregnant women.

To help tackle the problem of vitamin A deficiency, CIP and partner organizations have introduced OSP in Uganda and Mozambique, adapting the crop to local tastes and growing conditions. By replacing white sweet potato with OSP varieties, the nutritional status of women and children can be improved significantly. Just 125g from most orange-fleshed varieties contain enough beta-carotene to provide the daily vitamin A needs of a preschooler.

More information on sweet potato can be found on the Crop Trust's website.

Crop Trust

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