As an enthusiastic globetrotter and a food scientist by profession, I tend to notice during my travels, how food plays an important role in different cultures, how it is procured and most importantly, how it is made available to consumers.
In 2017, the World Food System Center organized a lecture by Dr. Maria Andrade who is one of the four 2016 World Food Prize laureates. She talked about the biofortification of sweet potatoes, which is bringing a nutritional revolution in Mozambique. Her lecture was very inspiring and I took the opportunity to visit her in Maputo, Mozambique in December 2017.
Dr. Andrade was very welcoming and enthusiastic to share her experience with the development of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes in the last 20 years. I learned that, when Dr. Andrade arrived in Mozambique in 1996, not a single variety of orange-fleshed sweet potato existed in the market at that time. There were only white-fleshed sweet potatoes that were widely consumed. With intensive research on breeding while emphasizing on important characteristics such as drought resistance, locational adaptability etc., by 2011, fifteen varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes were released, which are high in vitamin A. These varieties can contribute significantly in narrowing the nutrition-gap in Mozambican diet (read more about it here). Since sweet potatoes and corn are staple foods, it’s the easiest and fastest way to include the bio-fortified food.
In 2016, new purple-fleshed varieties were released and persistent work has been done in the past years in order to increase shoot biomass production. This is because high shoot biomass has a high relevance for survival of the plant in drought prone areas. With consistent research, Dr. Andrade’s team managed to significantly increase this biomass by 2016. The development of new varieties of sweet potato requires multiple steps such as collection of seeds, germination, evaluation, crossing of breeds, germination and multiplication, observation period, preliminary yield trials, advanced yield trials, and finally multi-location yield trials. With the accelerated methods of developing new varieties, Dr. Andrade could achieve new varieties in a short time span of four years.
It was an intellectually stimulating experience to visit the test plantations at the IIAM center in Maputo and get insights on the whole process of selection and analytics of the newly harvested potato varieties from the experimental fields.
Later, I also saw stacks of these potatoes sold by local farmers on the street sides and I relished some fresh produce myself.
A few months later, I had a chance to visit Iceland, a completely different geographical location and landscape from Mozambique. The differences in the food systems were quite interesting. The major food industry of Iceland revolves around fisheries and a huge amount of food is actually imported, which makes food an expensive commodity. Consumers are also keen on buying supplements, which is evident from the abundance of these nutrients enclosed in pills in the supermarket. However, they have bounty of geothermal energy and they utilize that not only for heating homes but also for fish farms, greenhouses etc. These greenhouses have a significant role and support greatly in supplying fresh produce such as salads.
It was quite fascinating for me to see how human kind adapts to different environments and uses science and technology to establish different food systems, whether it is for drought conditions or lack of sunlight.
Now, as I munch on some Icelandic licorice and sip my moringa tea, I plan my next exploration.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anubha Garg is a doctoral student at ETH Zurich with a research focus in the area of food process engineering. Her interests are in developing new products, understanding and optimizing processes and finding relevant solutions to food related issues. Anubha believes that food is an integral aspect of everyone’s life and there is a huge potential to make a difference with diverse expertise. In her free time, she likes to be close to nature and explore different forms of art.