Published on: December 2, 2010Now available on iTunes…
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Hi, I’m Kevin Coupe and this is a Thursday Eye-Opener on MNB Radio, available on iTunes and brought to you this week by Webstop, experts in the art of retail website design.
There was an interesting confluence of items in the New York Times on Thanksgiving morning, one on the front page and one in the op-ed section. They were sort of about the same thing, but the information and angles were completely different.
The subject was sweet potatoes.
On page one, the story went like this:
“The irrepressible sweet potato is having its moment.
“American farmers expect to harvest a record two billion pounds this year (and) ...have achieved a status that just a few years ago would have seemed laughable.
“They may even be hip.
“Like skinny jeans, bamboo-frame bicycles or Disney stars, what is in and what is out can change in a flash. Just three years ago, The Wall Street Journal expressed the food world’s consensus view and declared on its front page that after the Thanksgiving dishes were cleared, the sweet potato was no more special than a turnip.
“Yet the rough-skinned vegetable is arriving these days on plates both elevated and humble, from fancy state meals made with produce from the White House organic garden to a seasonal side dish served with cinnamon dipping sauce at White Castle. Europeans, too, have begun romancing the American-grown sweet potato, and the sweet potato fry is getting so popular that research has shown almost half the children in America under 12 have tried one.”
And, the story went on:
“There is no denying that sweet potato fries are at the center of the revolution. What began as innovation at the trendiest restaurants in San Francisco and New York in the 1980s has finally worked its way into the culinary mainstream. Over the past two years, the number of restaurants offering sweet potatoes as a side dish has increased by 40 percent, most of that from sweet potato fries, according to a survey of the menus at 900 restaurants by Technomic Inc., a market research firm.”
Now, I must admit that as I read the story, I knew at least some of this information ... and have been part of the trend, ordering sweet potato fries whenever I get the opportunity.
But I had to go to the Times op-ed page to get another view of the sweet potato, from columnist Nicholas Kristof, who wrote the following in a column about world hunger:
“Our hero, appropriate for this season, is a high-tech and heroic version of the vitamin-packed, orange-fleshed sweet potato. Along with a few other newly designed foods, it may help save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives each year.
“If there’s any justice in the world, statues may eventually be erected of this noble root, the Mother Teresa of the dinner plate. But, first, the back story. We think of starvation as a shortage of calories, but researchers are finding that the biggest reason people die of malnutrition is simply lack of micronutrients.
“Without enough zinc, children die of diarrhea. Without enough iron, children are anemic and women die in childbirth. Without enough vitamin A, small children often go blind or die. More than one-third of African preschoolers lack vitamin A, and hundreds of thousands die as a result. (Americans get enough vitamin A because of a more varied diet and fortified foods.)
“Unicef and other aid organizations like Helen Keller International have been working frantically to distribute vitamin A capsules and iron and zinc supplements in poor countries, or to fortify foods with minerals and vitamins.
“But it’s a long, hard slog. A vitamin A capsule costs only a couple of cents, but delivering the capsules to remote villages can cost as much as $1 each.”
“Orange sweet potatoes on our Thanksgiving tables are full of beta carotene, which the body turns into vitamin A. But our sweet potatoes don’t grow well in Africa. Africans eat an estimated seven million tons of sweet potatoes a year, but theirs are white ones that lack vitamin A.
“So scientists cross-bred sweet potatoes until they came up with vitamin A-rich orange varieties that grow well in Africa. Hard-bitten health specialists go weak-kneed over them.
“More than 170,000 Ugandan and Mozambiquan families are now growing these sweet potatoes. And the sweet potato is just the first of a number of crops that have been bred or engineered to address micronutrient deficiencies. This mix of agriculture and nutrition is called biofortification, and it’s one of the hot words in the global poverty lexicon.
“Also in the works are rice and wheat packed with zinc, pearl millet and beans with iron, bright orange corn and golden cassava that give people vitamin A.”
Kristof notes that biofortification, which essentially is a kind of genetic engineering, is controversial in some circles:
“No battle against poverty goes smoothly, or as planned,” he writes. “And the European left’s sad hostility to scientific tinkering with crops may slow acceptance of biofortification. If that hostility gains ground, it will be harder to save children from blindness and death.”
But the science is promising, the arguments persuasive, and the uses for these biofortified sweet potatoes - and other products - undeniable.
“Children have been dying for lack of vitamin A, iron and zinc for thousands of generations,” Kristof concludes. “These new seeds may finally help end the scourge of starvation in this century, on our watch. And that’s a special reason to give thanks.”
I’ll never look at the sweet potato fries on my plate quite the same way again, nor will I think of issues of genetic engineering without remembering Kristof’s column.
These issues are not black and white, are not always easy to resolve. But some things - like solving malnutrition in children - ought to be more important than others.
And that’s the Eye-Opening I got on Thanksgiving morning.
For MNB Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.
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