With advances in crop development, the global agriculture and food sectors have geared up to make people healthier. One notable improvement in crop breeding is called biofortification. It produces food staples with better micronutrient efficiencies, and it improves farmer incomes.

In Uganda, biofortified orange sweet potatoes introduced in 2007 are saving the lives of previously undernourished and underweight children. The orange potatoes are bred to have high amounts of beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A.

Children need vitamin A to build their immune systems and maintain good eyesight. Just a half cup of these biofortified potatoes, whether boiled or mashed, meets the daily needs for a child under 5.

A farmer shows off some recently harvested orange sweet potatoes. (Feed the Future)

In addition to offering greater nutritional value than the white and yellow potato varieties traditionally eaten by Ugandans, the nutrient-dense orange variety matures earlier and produces higher yields, giving farmers higher incomes, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The cost of inaction

Malnutrition is an economic burden. Undernourished children grow up to be adults earning 20 percent less than those whose diets were healthy, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent research group. But as strides are made to provide enough food to populations, a new problem emerges: What people eat is not necessarily healthy.

The results of poor diets are disease and disability, both more prevalent in low- and middle-income countries. Most countries now spend as much as 9 percent of national incomes on treating people who are overweight. In Africa and Asia, the cost is close to 11 percent.

Bringing the world to the table

USAID is a partner in a program called Feed the Future. With other partners, such as HarvestPlus, the agency has worked to develop the biofortified sweet potatoes in Uganda and similar healthier and high-yielding crops such as rice with zinc in Bangladesh or iron-fortified beans in Rwanda.

The day’s harvest from a hospital garden in Senegal goes to feed patients. (Feed the Future)

On a parallel track, Feed the Future is fighting a global obesity problem with information about the importance of a healthy diet. In Nigeria, it works with faith-based institutions to promote healthy eating. In Ghana, it teaches families about the special dietary needs of children and pregnant or lactating women.

“While challenges remain, the focus and commitment is there,” said Richard Greene of USAID. “The global community has come a long way on nutrition.”