Celebrating the Potato AFBI Potato Programmes
To celebrate the International Year of the Potato, AFBI scientists have written a series of articles, some providing background to the potato and others reporting some of their own work. This is the twelfth and final article in the series and can be viewed along with the others on the AFBI website at www.afbini.gov.uk
A field of potatoes in County Down.
AFBI scientists are involved in a number of programmes on potatoes. New potato varieties adapted to both local and overseas markets are bred at AFBI Loughgall, and these, along with varieties from any and every breeder in the UK and Ireland, and further afield, are evaluated for growing, storing, eating and processing at AFBI Crossnacreevy. At AFBI Newforge, eating and processing quality is researched by food scientists, while monitoring and control of potato blight and other diseases and pests, including potato cyst nematode (PCN), are the concern of plant health scientists. All these programmes involve collaboration with DARD and CAFRE colleagues, our collective aim being to support and enhance the opportunities for the potato sector in Northern Ireland.
Potato breeding at AFBI Loughgall is focused on producing varieties suitable for the seed export market from Northern Ireland. Six new varieties which are high yielding and adapted to both Mediterranean and UK growing conditions, have been registered in the past 8 years. Three of these, Sunset, Sparkle and Richhill, have been bred with above average levels of resistance to diseases and mark a progression towards varieties requiring less agrochemical input. Several commercial contracts, existing and about to come on-stream, will bring these, and new varieties in the pipeline, into commercial use.
The many varieties of potatoes have different properties, not only in terms of processing attributes but also in terms of their eating quality. At the AFBI Newforge Sensory Evaluation Unit, the eating quality of potatoes and chips of varieties grown under different conditions are assessed by trained and untrained sensory panels. In addition, studies have investigated the variation in likes and dislikes of consumer sectors using cluster analysis and preference mapping.
AFBI Crossnacreevy publishes the DARD Potato Varieties booklet biennially, the most recent being that for 2009. Information is provided on yield and other agronomic characteristics including number and size of tubers, freedom from defects, resistance to damage and foliage maturity. This is based on data from trials at CAFRE Greenmount, AFBI Crossnacreevy and in the Comber area. Dry matter, crisp colour, chipping quality and other characteristics conferring suitability for table use are included together with information from National List trials on resistance to major diseases and pests. Information on all varieties which have been included in trials in recent years, a total of 160, is available on the AFBI website (www.afbini.gov.uk).
Research on potato blight at AFBI Newforge allows control strategies appropriate to Northern Ireland conditions to be formulated to counter this ongoing threat to the potato crop. Field trials of fungicides, monitoring of fungicide resistance and evaluation of partially blight-resistant potato varieties are all important for this. AFBI researchers are collaborating with colleagues at the Teagasc Crop Research Centre, Oak Park, Carlow and the Sárvári Research Trust, Wales, in a project funded by the Research Stimulus Fund of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food of the Republic of Ireland, which is allowing blight to be studied on an all-Ireland basis. Participation in the Euroblight Potato Late Blight Network and links with research groups in the US ensure that AFBI scientists are aware of the latest developments in potato blight research.
Potatoes are also subject to many other diseases which can reduce quality and yield. One recent success at AFBI Newforge, in conjunction with DARD Quality Assurance Branch, relates to potato wart disease which caused severe losses during the first half of the last century. This fungal pathogen contaminates soils with very long-lived spores; to prevent its spread affected fields were ‘scheduled’ and potato production prohibited. However, no outbreaks have occurred for 50 years and descheduling of previously infested fields commenced in the year 2000 and should be completed within the next 3 years.
As part of the Seed Potato Certification Scheme, AFBI scientists carry out diagnostic tests to ensure mother tubers used in the production of micro-plants are free of all quarantine pathogens e.g. aphid transmitted viruses, Brown Rot and Ring Rot bacteria. In addition, AFBI continues to provide all technical services for PCN identification within the Plant Health Order (NI) on soil samples from land intended to produce certified potato crops. This service has been provided since 1945 and ensures the high health status of potatoes from Northern Ireland.
Research on nematodes that attack potatoes has traditionally concentrated on the potato cyst nematodes Globodera rostochiensis, and G. pallida. This has focused on the diagnostics of various pathotypes that have developed within both species and their appropriate management options. However, a tangible effect of climate change has been the recent emergence of additional infestations in potato crops by root-knot nematodes usually associated with warmer conditions and the potential threat of these, and other, groups of nematodes is currently being evaluated. With the availability of nematicides for potato production now extremely limited, recent research has also concentrated on the management of nematodes by other more environmentally-acceptable methods and a number of bio-fumigant and bio-stimulant products (based on formulations derived from mustard, chilli, garlic, sugar and seaweeds) are being evaluated.
The potato is now the third most important food crop in the world because it produces the highest energy yield per hectare of any food crop and has an almost ideal nutritional portfolio. However, its productivity is sustainable only through the use of petrochemicals providing fuel, pesticides and fertilisers. The challenge for AFBI scientists is to reduce this reliance on fossil fuels through the breeding of more robust and efficient varieties and through improving agronomy, pest and disease management practices. AFBI scientists are also responding to the increasing emphasis on functional aspects of food in researching and promoting the potato as nutritious, healthy and tasty. Further information on all the services and research projects referred to in this article can be obtained by contacting AFBI or visiting the website www.afbini.gov.uk.
by Dr Michael Camlin, Applied Plant Science and Biometrics Division.