August 23, 2016

Dr. Jan Low Fights Global Malnutrition With Sweet Potatoes

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While undertaking her doctoral research, in Nairobi, Kenya, Dr. Jan Low, M.S. ’85, Ph.D. ’94 realized a switch in sweet potato varieties could make major differences in the health of those living in sub-Saharan Africa. This realization, and her subsequent work for the International Potato Center on the orange-fleshed sweet potato led her to recently be named a 2016 World Food Prize co-laureate.

Dr. Low — who will share her $250,000 prize with two colleagues at the CIP and Howarth Bouis at HarvestPlus — credits her time as both a masters and a doctoral student in Cornell’s Agricultural Economics program as an important stepping stone to her work in global agricultural and nutrition. More specifically, she points to her ability to minor in nutrition — while pursuing her Ph.D. in agricultural economics — for giving her the ability to work “multi-sectorally,” which, for her, entails “focusing on integrating nutritional concerns into agricultural project and program design.” It was the work of her department’s chairperson, however, that started her thinking about the projects she would eventually set out to tackle.

Dr. Daniel Sisler — Low’s chairperson throughout her doctoral studies — was interested in vitamin A thanks to his work with Helen Keller International, a New York-based non-governmental organization that works to combat the causes and repercussions of blindness. Sisler introduced Low to emerging research findings demonstrating that improved vitamin A status resulted in reduced childhood mortality.

After receiving her Ph.D., Low set out for the regional office of the International Potato Center in Nairobi with a two-year Rockefeller Foundation Social Science Fellowship. It was during her time here that Dr. Low realized the diffusion of the orange-fleshed sweetpotato throughout sub-Saharan Africa — as opposed to the dominant white-fleshed variety,  which is completely lacking in pro-vitamin A — could help alleviate that region’s struggles with vitamin A deficiency. Leading the proposal funded by the International Center for Research on Women, the orange-fleshed sweetpotato in sub-Saharan Africa, Low worked closely with the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute. Her work on that study, opened her eyes to the need for nutritional education to guarantee the consumption of the orange-fleshed sweetpotato by children under five years of age, the group most at risk of vitamin A deficiency.

Low’s transition upon completing her post-doc put her ability to work multi-sectorally on full display: joining the International Food Policy and Research Institute as a research fellow in Mozambique, led the analysis of nutritional status data as part of a team training Mozambican scientists in data analysis as well as the interpretation of the fist poverty study conducted since the ending of Mozambique’s civil war. Low stayed in Mozambique after the end of the IFPRI project under the employment of Michigan State University, working as a policy analyst and advisor. During her time in this position, Low helped fortify the capacity of Mozambique’s scientists to do fieldwork and sought to revamp Mozambique’s national sample survey for agriculture.

Despite focusing her work on science and research while in Mozambique, Low never lost sight of her desire to alleviate global micronutrient deficiency. Beginning in 1999 and concluding in 2001, Low designed and raised funds for the multi-sectoral  Towards Sustainable Nutrition Improvement research project with the purpose of discovering whether orange-fleshed sweetpotato, in an integrated agriculture-nutrition-marketing approach, could indeed reduce vitamin A deficiency in young children. It was not until 2002, however — after delivering countless talks and approaching over 21 donors — that Low received sufficient funding (from the Micronutrient Initiative of Canada, the Rockefeller Foundation and USAID-Washington) to go forward with the project.

By this point, an associate professor at MSU, Low moved to Mozambique’s Zambézia province — one of the poorest in the nation. There, along with World Vision International and Helen Keller International, she spent three years implementing the TSNI research project. The resulting paper,  which demonstrated that a 15% reduction in the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency could be attributed to the use of an integrated agriculture-nutrition intervention, was  published in the Journal of Nutrition, and won the annual Consultative Group for International Agriculture Research Award for best scientific paper in 2007.

Low’s rejoined CIP in late 2005 as its Regional Leader for sub-Saharan Africa. There, she directed the seed system component of the follow-upon Reach End Users study — lead by HarvestPlus — which explored how the OFSP-based integrated nutrition and agriculture project could be brought to scale in Mozambique and Uganda. The promising findings of the study demonstrates that the use of OFSP as part of a food-based approach is a realistic methods of combatting malnutrition in the developing world.

Low has been with the CIP ever since, though the funding of the Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa project in 2009 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation saw Low shift from Regional Leader  to manager of the new project and leader of the Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative, which seeks to improve the lives of millions of African households by 2020 through access to improved varieties of sweetpotato and the diversification of their use. Again, the multi-sectional approach she first developed at Cornell is apparent in her work: the SASHA project entails breeding and seed system research, animal feed research, transgenic research on weevil resistance, and three separate delivery system projects, which require both baseline and endline studies.

Why try and take so many approaches under the guise of one initiative?

“The causes of child undernutrition are complex and cannot be solved without a major effort across the sectors of nutrition, health, agriculture, education, and finance” Low explains.

Indeed, what drives Low is itself multisectoral.

“I get great satisfaction watching the light bulbs go off when people from different sectors start seeing the need to work together. I also am motivated by watching mothers feeding young children orange-fleshed sweetpotato for the first time and watching their positive reactions when they see their children easily accepting the mashed OFSP,” Low said.

Still, Low warns against orange-fleshed sweetpotato as the “be all and end all”, explaining that she does not see them as a “magic bullet,” but instead as “an easy-to-grow entry point to begin working with caregivers about good dietary practice for themselves and their children.”

Sub-Saharan Africa is not the only place where OFSP could make advances in nourishment. Southeast Asia, Dr. Low explains, has exceptionally high vitamin A deficiency levels amongst children and is well suited to growing OFSP. Yet the problem in spreading OFSP in Southeast Asia is as much cultural as it is educational. Because sweet potatoes have never been a large part of the diet of Southeast Asia, it is difficult to promote their large-scale consumption.

Sweet potatoes — meaning the white-fleshed variety — have, however, been a large part of the sub-Saharan diet for a long time. As such, a switch to growing OFSP is, for that region, a rather minute one. And, despite Low’s cautions, OFSP is a remarkable crop in many ways: a wonderful source of vitamins A, C, E, and K, as well as several B vitamins and minerals, orange-fleshed sweetpotato is affordable and also has edible leaves chock full of vitamins and minerals. Low points out that, to meet their Vitamin A needs, a family of five only needs to plant 500 square meters of the orange-fleshed sweetpotato twice a year. Furthermore, because of its rapid mature time, two to three crops of OFSP can be grown annually — with the right amount of moisture. Finally, Low elaborates, because it is possible to retain the vines of the orange-fleshed sweetpotato and share them with neighbors, the crop is excellent in terms of farmer sovereignty (but not ideal to private sector seed companies looking to turn a profit).

In summation, Low explains that, “basically, you have an amazing crop that was being underutilized and underinvested in largely because it was considered a crop of the poor. Using OFSP, we strive to get the crop re-branded as a healthy food for all.”

Thanks in part to the ability to work multi-sectorally she picked up while a student at Cornell, and in large part because of her own skills and drive, Low has been making exceptional progress on that mission for years — and is being recognized for it in the form of a World Food Prize.

Still, even a World Food Prize for the many astounding years of service she has already put into fighting global malnutrition and her work in spreading OFSP in sub-Saharan Africa does not entice Dr. Low into slowing down her work and taking a victory lap.

When asked what she plans to do with the prize money, Low replies, “I would like to set up a fund that would support an annual prize for best scientific articles in the biological sciences and best article in the social sciences on biofortified sweetpotato or potato for work done or to support progress in the African context.”

As usual, sweet potatoes and the fight against global malnourishment are the first thing on Low’s mind.