In a bid to tackle malnutrition in developing countries, scientists are creating a “super potato”, fortified with iron and zinc. As millions of people around the world suffer micronutrient deficiencies, a lack of essential vitamins and minerals, this leads to stunting in children, who then go on to suffer cognitive delays, weakened immunity and disease. Pregnant women who lack micronutrients are more likely to have babies with defects or low birth weight.
Third most consumed food in the world
Potato is a staple crop in many parts of the world and researchers at the International Potato Centre (CIP) in Peru believe that a biofortified variety could have an important role to play in improving diets. After rice and maize, the potato is the third most consumed food in the world, so increasing its micronutrient content would make a significant difference to people’s health around the globe, said Dr Oscar Ortiz, director of the CIP.
“Potato already has proteins, iron, zinc and vitamin C and it is also an extremely good source of fibre. It’s a well-balanced food if consumed boiled or baked. But we can make it even better,” he said.
Potatoes may have developed an image problem in recent years with the move to “low carb” diets but Dr Ortiz believes this is mainly because of the way they are consumed as chips or fries.
Work on biofortification of the potato began in 2004 as researchers looked through a gene bank of around 200 varieties from countries around the Andes - where the potato originated.
Researchers identified 16 native varieties with high levels of iron, zinc and vitamin C and then spent more than a decade crossing these types with each other to produce varieties with even higher levels of micronutrients. These were then crossed with other types of potato with high yields and good resistance to disease such as blight. These varieties have 40 to 80 per cent more iron than types currently grown in the Andes.
Now these potatoes are being tested to see if they grow in other parts of the world: clones are being grown in Rwanda and Kenya and will soon be introduced to Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
Researchers are also conducting bioavailability testing to see whether the increased iron content of the potato is absorbed by the human body. Once this is confirmed Dr Ortiz believes that the new varieties will be available within the next two years.
“If we can confirm this, which is a critical milestone, the potato will be available in 2021,” he said.