How sweet it is to be healthy
A $140,000 project co-ordinated by a University of Adelaide researcher is reaping enormous health benefits for villagers in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.
It's sweet, starchy and orange and could hold the key to abolishing some of the developing world's most serious diseases.
If Dr Graham Lyons has his way, the orange-fleshed sweet potato will become the staple food crop in Melanesia within the next decade, providing much needed Vitamin A to boost immunity and curb major nutritional deficiencies.
The University of Adelaide Research Fellow has spent the last two and a half years in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, working on a project to encourage villagers to eat orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and other coloured local produce in preference to imported foods.
Funded by HarvestPlus and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the $140,000 project has been an outstanding success, restoring pride in locally-grown foods and reducing the spread of malaria and eye problems.
The orange-fleshed sweet potato contains plenty of beta-carotene, a key factor in Vitamin A which plays a major role in boosting immunity, improving eye health and helping to protect against anaemia, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.
"The sweet potato is far and away the most important food crop in Melanesia," Dr Lyons said. "When we started the project almost three years ago we found that Solomon Island villagers grew a small amount of the orange-fleshed sweet potato because they liked the colour and flavour, but had no idea it delivered such important health benefits."
Dr Lyons and his team have been working with a local seed garden association to deliver more than 30 workshops in the region promoting the value of growing coloured fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene.
"We have collaborated with the Custom Garden Association in Honiara to find the most superior varieties of sweet potato, as well as yellow bananas, legumes and other green, leafy vegetables which deliver fantastic nutrients," he said.
Food posters, community plantings and nutrition workshops hosted by Dr Lyons and renowned nutritionists and anthropologists Dr Lois Englberger (Micronesia) and Dr Wendy Foley (Queensland) have got the message across.
As a result, many villagers in parts of the Solomon Islands and PNG are now growing more colourful vegetables and fruits than before, including orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, pawpaw and yellow "toraka" bananas. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the incidence of malaria and night blindness has declined in these areas.
Sweet potatoes are now more commonly grown than taros, yams and cassava in much of the Solomons and PNG as they produce more per hectare than other crops, especially on poor soils.
Raising pride in local produce is also helping to counter the reliance on imported processed food, such as polished rice, white flour and white sugar -- all linked to increasing levels of diabetes and heart disease in the Pacific region.
Much of the success of the Harvest Plus and ACIAR program is due to the fact that Dr Lyons works with villagers at a grassroots level, funding them directly and ensuring the money is distributed properly to reap the maximum benefits.
"ACIAR is very happy with the results we have achieved. For a small project -- $140,000 in total -- the health and cultural benefits to the Solomon Islands and PNG have been outstanding," Dr Lyons said.
Dr Lyons has a Bachelor of Agricultural Science, Masters of Public Health and a PhD in Micronutrients, all from the University of Adelaide. He will finish the project in early 2010. ■
STORY CANDY GIBSON
Vitamin A deficiency affects up to 400 million people around the world, including around 150 million children. It often occurs in conjunction with protein, iron and zinc deficiencies and is manifested in blindness, impaired bone growth, susceptibility to malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia and measles.
Just 100 grams of orange-fleshed sweet potato a day can provide sufficient levels of Vitamin A to prevent deficiencies.
Recent research has shown that improving the Vitamin A status of young children in deficient populations leads to a 23% reduction in child mortality.