Uganda scientist Robert Mwanga has been named a winner of the 2016 World Food Prize for his landmark work in safeguarding the health of millions of babies and young children by boosting the nutritional value of common foods.
Dr. Mwanga and three other food scientists were selected because of their pioneering work in “biofortification,” a breeding method that increases the levels of critical nutrients in foods like the sweet potato, a common food on Ugandan tables.
Although the tuber is a rich natural source of Vitamin A—a critical nutrient for eye and immune system health—Dr. Mwanga and his colleagues used biofortification to produce an orange-fleshed sweet potato with higher levels of the vitamin.
About 38 percent of Uganda’s children under five and nearly the same percentage of Ugandan women of childbearing age are Vitamin A-deficient, making them susceptible to blindness and more vulnerable to the effects of diseases like malaria.
Increases in Vitamin A have also been shown to reduce the incidence of measles, diarrhea and maternity-related maladies.
President Yoweri Museveni has made conquering malnutrition a key component of his anti-poverty program while also supporting scientific advances like Mwanga’s through the Presidential Initiative on Science and Technology.
Over the past three decades, Dr. Mwanga has campaigned relentlessly for the scientific community to focus on the sweet potato because of its popularity in African households. According to HarvestPlus, the international hunger-fighting organization, the sweet potato is the “fourth most important staple food in the country.”
Dr. Mwanga’s efforts have led to a variety of disease-resistant sweet potatoes. He and his colleagues have trained breeders and technicians from 10 sub-Saharan countries in sweet potato breeding.
The U.S.-based World Food Prize Foundation will honor Dr. Mwanga and Dr. Maria Andrade of Cape Verde for breeding the enriched potato, and Dr. Jan Low of the United States for persuading “almost two million households in 10 African countries to plant, purchase and consume this nutritionally fortified food.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Howarth Bouis, founder of HarvestPlus, developed a global plant breeding strategy to spread the technology for the enriched sweet potatoes and other nutritionally fortified crops to over 40 countries. The World Health Organization says as many as one-third of the world’s young children are Vitamin-A deficient.
The World Food Prize was established in 1987 by Norman Borlaug, who is celebrated as “agriculture’s greatest spokesperson.” He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his contributions to increasing the supply of safe, nutritious food.
The four laureates will receive the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa, USA, on October 12-14. The award ceremony will be part of a two-day annual symposium on hunger and food security with “Let Food Be Thy Medicine” as its theme.
The prize was originally funded by U.S. food giant General Foods Corporation, but has been sponsored by the John Ruan Foundation Trust in Iowa.