Ariquimedes Peralta is a grower of biofortified vitamin A orange sweet potato (OSP) living in Macaracas, central Panama. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been travelling every 15 days to the capital, Panama City, to supply OSP to the main food markets. 

A smallholder farmer, he works hand in hand with his uncles and brothers growing OSP in his scenic village of Botoncillo. They distribute 8 tons of two varieties of OSP available, IDIAPC-090 and IDIAP-C03, every month to support food security in the country. Their production is crucial during this time of quarantine, and especially reassuring for the people in his community who can count on continuous produce supply during these difficult times. 

“I get the feeling that there is no food in town and I have seen that food is scarce.  That motivates you to work even though you are risking your life. How can you see people in need of food, wanting to eat something, and us here in the countryside? Thank God, we have something to eat. That makes you want to keep working and keep planting,” Peralta said of his farming during COVID-19.

Like most of the countries affected by COVID-19, Panama decreed special measures to restrict mobility, causing some supply problems in the food value chain. However, the Ariquimedes family has managed to distribute their harvest, even during the pandemic. 

 “This biofortified sweet potato has changed my life. When people see me, they know I have biofortified sweet potato and everyone wants it. Almost all the sweet potato I carry is biofortified. This week I went multiple times to the merca (the Panama Central Market) as it was sold out. I plan to continue delivering sweet potato and we have regular deliveries scheduled,” he added.

The agricultural sector in Panama has developed strategies so that this industry does not stop during the quarantine.  Dr. Arnulfo Gutiérrez, Director General of the Agricultural Research Institute of Panama (IDIAP), reported that the institution is prepared to make 200,000 kgs of all kinds of certified seed available for this year, including biofortified seed.

The biofortified OSP varieties, which are developed in partnership with the International Potato Center (CIP), produce excellent yields in both summer and winter and are available most of the year. These sweet potato varieties are high in vitamin A, a crucial micronutrient for the good development and functioning of the immune system. Vitamin A deficiency results in growth retardation, damage to mucous membranes, reproductive disorders, eye damage—and ultimately blindness. Children with vitamin A deficiency are often deficient in multiple micronutrients and are likely to be anemic, have impaired growth, and be at increased risk of severe morbidity from common childhood infections such as diarrhea and measles.

Biofortified crops are developed naturally through conventional field breeding and contain higher levels of micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron and zinc. In Panama, these varieties are promoted so that people can consume more nutritious varieties of their traditional foods such as corn, rice, beans, and sweet potatoes, thus strengthening their immune systems and ensuring health by consuming local, affordable, and low-cost staples. 

The AgroNutre Panamá Project led by IDIAP and in alliance with HarvestPlus and its partners, has released six varieties of various biofortified crops with competitive agronomic characteristics and good nutritional content. Maika Barría, Agronutré Project Coordinator, said this project seeks to protect the food security of the most vulnerable sectors. 

“The purpose of this project is to provide producers and consumers in areas of extreme poverty with a basic basket of food that will contribute to the development of good health and nutrition for the whole family,” said Barría.

Read more on how other Latin American Countries like Colombia are responding to COVID-19: Colombian Farmers Donate Zinc Rice to Coronavirus-Stricken Cartagena

Read here: How HarvestPlus Country teams are coping with COVID-19 and reaching vulnerable populations