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University of Hawaii Manoa research

Search for the perfect sweet potato may help out Hawaii growers

In a recent study, researchers discovered two new and promising Hawaiian heritage sweet potatoes that could bring millions back to Hawaii’s native people. Of course, sweet potatoes have been an important staple in the islands’ diet for centuries, but farmers trying to grow the crop organically face huge challenges ranging from pests to pathogens that can reduce their yield to less than 20%.

Six researchers at the University of Hawaii Manoa have now discovered two new and promising Hawaiian sweet potato varieties that matched or outperformed a local favorite: the purple Okinawa sweet potato.

Considering Hawaii’s high demand for sweet potatoes, there’s a huge opportunity to produce revenue, one of the UH researchers, Michael Kantar, told Kantar’s colleague Ted Radovich explained that they did not intentionally breed the sweet potatoes for their study. The University of Hawaii has certified organic plots at the research center where they preserve traditional Hawaiian heritage crops.

Once they noticed their sweet potato Mohihi yielded 50 seedlings, they decided to conduct a research study that could help increase yield and economic value for future farmers.

Sweet potatoes have about 50,000 genes, nearly double the number of genes present in humans, Kantar explained. They also have six versions of a single gene, resulting in an endless number of possible varieties.

So far, the study has named 19 potential pollen parents and temporarily nicknamed the 12 varieties as “Hapa Mohihi,” or HM. After evaluation, HM-34 and HM-26 showed the most potential for successful sale at the market.

The next phase will be harvesting the favorable HMs in Poamoho in the spring and sharing them with community members through the non-profit Ke Kula Nui O Waimanalo — of which Radovich is a board member — to include community voices to decide if they would like to name the varieties and sell them commercially.

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