20 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Sweet potato improves life for subsistence farmers

The golden flesh of new sweet potato varieties is lifting living standards in one of the world’s poorest nations, Timor-Leste. Thanks to new varieties of the vegetable, farmers in the young tropical nation not only have a more reliable crop that out-yields local varieties of sweet potato, they can also produce a highly nutritious food.

Sweet potato is mainly a breakfast or snack food on the island and is boiled in water, baked or roasted over an open fire, or fried in oil.

But researchers have found that the new varieties are helping improve life for Timor-Leste’s 1.1 million people, of whom more than 80% are subsistence farmers.

Professor William Erskine, director of the University of Western Australia’s centre for legumes in Mediterranean agriculture, co-authored a report of the research outlining the uses of sweet potato in a country that is third in a UN ranking of countries with the highest percentage of chronically malnourished children.

The centre staff along with the university’s institute of agriculture, Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and the Seeds of Life Program collaborated on nearly 200 farmer-managed trials in the 2006-07 and 2007-08 growing seasons.

Whether sweet potato varieties were planted in a mixed plot with maize, cassava, beans or yams and whether the plots were weeded or not had no effect on the sweet potato yield.

The new test varieties also produced a sweet potato that was more marketable because of its smooth skin and flesh and regular shape. They are now being widely adopted across Timor-Leste.

One variety, which is high in calories and has good levels of beta-carotene – the red-orange pigment in plants that is a source of vitamin A – is likely to help prevent calorie malnutrition as well as vitamin A deficiency. The latter can lead to cancer, birth defects, impaired immune function and night blindness.

The new varieties have the added advantages of being able to store well and maintain their beta-carotene content for at least 50 day and this is also retained during cooking.

The researchers said that the study was unique in the way it involved farmers in the trials and then being interviewed after each harvest. “They were asked about characteristics in the local and test varieties and whether they would re-plant and why,” the researchers wrote in a paper published in the journal Field Crops Research.

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