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Sweet Potatoes as Medicine


Sweet potatoes are loaded with Vitamin A. Vitamin A keeps your eyes healthy and helps the body fight infections. Eat more sweet potatoes! (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Sweet potatoes are loaded with Vitamin A. Vitamin A keeps your eyes healthy and helps the body fight infections. Eat more sweet potatoes! (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

From VOA Learning English, this is the Health and Lifestyle Report.

We Americans have an expression: “If you give a person a fish, they will eat for a day. If you teach a person to fish, they can eat for a lifetime.”

One way to explain this is that helping people grow their own food is a better way to fight hunger. That is the purpose of an agricultural research organization called HarvestPlus.

HarvestPlus is teaching people around the world how to grow what it calls “smart” crops. Its project in Mozambique is having surprising effects.

In Mozambique, the organization HarvestPlus promotes eating more orange-colored sweet potatoes. (Photo Courtesy - HarvestPlus)

In Mozambique, the organization HarvestPlus promotes eating more orange-colored sweet potatoes. (Photo Courtesy - HarvestPlus)

In 2006, HarvestPlus workers provided orange sweet potato plants to people in 24 Mozambique villages. The workers taught these people how to grow the vegetables. They also explained the importance of Vitamin A to staying healthy.

Farmers in Mozambique had been planting white and yellow sweet potatoes, not the orange-colored ones. The white and yellow potatoes have very little Vitamin A. However, one small, orange sweet potato has a full day’s supply of Vitamin A.

A lack of Vitamin A is dangerous. Without enough Vitamin A, you face an increased risk of getting a serious disease or dying from infections.

Around the world, 190 million young children are not getting enough of this important vitamin in the foods they eat. That number comes from the World Health Organization.

Economist Alan de Brauw is with the International Food Policy Research Institute. He talks about the HarvestPlus project in Mozambique. He says about 70 percent of children there were Vitamin A deficient. They were not getting enough Vitamin A.

“About 70 percent of kids under the age of five were vitamin A deficient. So, you have this huge need for new solutions. If you can do something through agriculture to increase the amount of vitamin in the diet … you’re in much better shape because that’s much more sustainable.”

Mr. de Brauw says the potatoes had a surprising effect on the health of children. At the end of the three-year study, the researchers compared the health of children in villages growing orange sweet potatoes with those not growing them.

Children living in the sweet potato villages had 40 percent fewer cases of diarrhea than other boys and girls. Among children under the age of three, the difference was 50 percent. According to Mr. de Brauw showing the impact of a food-growing project on health is very important, or as he says, a big deal.

Health specialists say lack of vitamin A can cause blindness in children (Photo Courtesy - Light for the World)

Health specialists say lack of vitamin A can cause blindness in children (Photo Courtesy - Light for the World)

“This is a big deal because nobody has shown in the past that an agricultural production intervention can have big health impacts … have had any health impacts.”

Nutrition experts say vitamin supplements – that is, fluids or pills you take in addition to normal meals -- can only do so much. One expert goes so far to say that supplements are a Band-aid -- a short-term fix to a long-term problem.

Anne Herforth is an expert on global food security and nutrition. She was not part of this study but talked about it with VOA’s Steve Baragona on Skype.

“It’s sort of a Band-Aid solution to a more fundamental problem, which is people not having access to high-quality diets.”

Experts are suggesting that linking agriculture and health issues is a natural and effective partnership. They say teaching farmers how to grow healthier food is among the best ways to improve health.

Different types of millet are helping feed people in India, Africa and other parts of the world. (AP Photo)

Different types of millet are helping feed people in India, Africa and other parts of the world. (AP Photo)

Ms. Herfoth says the findings do a good job making the link between food production and health.

“To say, ‘You know, look, you produce a food and it’s available to people to eat and they like it,' then it does good things for health.”

HarvestPlus is now helping farmers in other countries. In India, the group is helping farmers grow iron-rich millet. And in Bangladesh, it is helping farmers grow high-zinc rice.

Mr. de Brauw helped to write a report on the HarvestPlus project. The report appeared in the journal World Development.

And that’s the Health & Lifestyle Report. I’m Anna Matteo.

VOA’s Steve Baragona reported on this story. Anna Matteo adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

supplement n. medical : (dietary) a product containing ingredients such as vitamins or amino acids that are taking in addition to food, but are not considered food

deficient adj. not having enough of something that is important or necessary

diarrhea n. medical : an illness that causes you to pass waste from your body very frequently and in liquid rather than solid form

impact n. a powerful or major influence or effect : impact can also be used as a verb

intervene v. to become involved in something in order to have an influence on what happens : intervention is the noun

millet n. a type of grass that is grown for its seeds which are used as food

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