How Chinese Refugees Saved the Sweet Potato

FOOD

In the 1940s, Joe and Fay Gock fled to New Zealand from China. In the best video you’ll watch all week, see how they repaid their host country by rescuing a staple crop—the sweet potato—after a disease ravaged much of the country’s supply. (The Atlantic)

Use our sweet, sweet map layer to see where sweet potatoes are being produced.

We have two teaching strategies outlined below—one focusing on comprehension and media literacy, the other on sweet potatoes as a staple food.  Scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit. 

Discussion Ideas: Media Literacy

 

 

 

  • What two innovations allowed the Gocks to “save the sweet potato”?
    • Joe Gock, who describes himself as an “experimenter” rather than an inventor, developed a way to keep kumara sheds warm all year. This allowed the harvest to save (not rot) and be a consistent crop.
    • The key innovation was the Gocks’ successful breeding of a strain of sweet potato that was resistant to black rot. Black rot is a fungal disease that decimated crops in New Zealand (specifically, the video mentions the northern agricultural region of Dargaville). The Gocks chose to share this crucial agricultural technology with farmers in their adopted country for free instead of securing a patent that could have made them millions.

 

Discussion Ideas: Sweet Potatoes as a Staple Food

  • The fantastic, Dr. Seuss-style rhyming story details how the Gocks saved the kumara. But we describe the food as a sweet potato. What is the difference?
    • Just language! Different words for the same tuber. “Kumara” is the Maori word for the food, while “sweet potato” is the English.

 

Sweet potatoes are indigenous to the Americas. Their skins come in yellows, oranges, reds, browns, and purples. Their flesh can be whites, reds, pinks, purples, yellows, or oranges. Ivan Atmanagara, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0

Sweet potatoes are indigenous to the Americas. Their skins come in yellows, oranges, reds, browns, and purples. Their flesh comes in whites, reds, pinks, purples, yellows, or oranges.
Ivan Atmanagara, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0

  • What are sweet potatoes or kumara?
    • Sweet potatoes are root vegetables that are only distantly related to potatoes or yams—although yams are often erroneously called “sweet potatoes” in the United States.

 

  • The Atlantic describes kumara as a staple crop in New Zealand. What is a staple crop? Take a look at our study guide for some help.
    • Staple crops are food crops that are often the basis for food staples. A food staple is a food that makes up the dominant part of a population’s diet. Food staples are eaten regularly—even daily—and supply a major proportion of a person’s energy and nutritional needs.
      • In addition to sweet potatoes, other worldwide food staples include cassava, rice, sorghum, maize, soybeans, yams, plantains, potatoes, and wheat.

 

  • Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 7.19.15 AMTake a look at today’s MapMaker Interactive map—our layer on the production of sweet potatoes around the world. Where are some of the world’s largest producers of sweet potatoes?
    • According to the FAO, the leading producers of sweet potatoes are
      • China (79 million tons)
    • and everyone else:
      • Nigeria (3.4 million tons)
      • Tanzania (3.1 million tons)
      • Uganda (2.4 million tons)
      • Indonesia (2.4 million tons)
      • Angola (2 million tons)
      • Ethiopia (1.4 million tons)
      • Vietnam (1.3 million tons)
      • Kenya (1.2 million tons)
      • India (1.1 million tons)
      • United States (1.1 million tons)
      • Rwanda (1 million tons)
    • According to the USDA, sweet potato production in the United States is dominated by North Carolina. California, Louisiana, and Mississippi also have growing sweet potato sectors.

 

  • Why do you think New Zealand, where sweet potatoes (kumara) are a staple food, is not a leading producer of the crop?
    • New Zealand is a relatively small island country. It simply does not have the agricultural acreage to devote to sweet potato production.

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

The Atlantic: How Chinese Refugees Saved the Sweet Potato

Nat Geo: Where are the world’s sweet potatoes produced? map

Nat Geo: What are staple food crops of the world? study guide

FAOStat: Crops: Sweet potato production (interactive chart—learn how to navigate this great tool!)

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