From a low-glycemic potato to a brand-new pigmented variety, here are Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s 13 Accelerated Release varieties for 2012.
“One of my central interests is a plant’s harvest index,” says Hubert Zandstra, former director general of the International Potato Center in Peru. In an article entitled The Promise of the Potato, Zandstra explains that harvest index is “the ratio of the weight of usable food to the weight of the entire plant,” which provides a good gauge of a crop’s efficiency. The potato typically has a harvest index of 75 to 85 per cent. “This means that less than a quarter of the plant material produced by sunlight, water, nutrients, labour and other inputs is wasted,” he says. “Compared with other crops, that is an astounding figure. Amid all the talk of ‘miracle grains,’ the humble spud is miraculous indeed.”
At the heart of this unique quality of the potato is its genetic make-up, where all breeding and all new varieties begin. It takes many years of dedicated work to develop a new and successful potato variety. However, success in the world of potato breeding is a relative concept—a variety might have excellent yield, but fall short in terms of resistance to certain pests and diseases. Or it might have great agronomical potential from a grower’s point of view, but might not have any of the desired qualities required by the industry beyond the farm gate, be it as a processing or table potato. For this reason, the breeding of new potato varieties has become a highly specialized business.
At the annual AAFC potato variety open house on February 15, 2012 in Fredericton, a total of 13 promising new varieties were showcased and are to be released from the government’s breeding program for testing by interested parties. This is part of the Accelerated Release Program, which was established in 1998 with the aim of offering Canadian potato industry entrepreneurs an opportunity to evaluate the front runners of early selection trials first-hand in their own fields.
Participants pay $100 per selection and receive a limited quantity of breeders’ seed plus non-exclusive rights to conduct their own field performance and quality evaluation trials for two years. After that, participants can submit cash bids to procure a further three-year period of exclusive testing.
Benoit Bizimungu, a research scientist and breeder at the Potato Research Centre, says he was very pleased with the industry’s interest in the event this year. “The attendance was excellent,” he says. “We had visitors from the East to the West who made the trip to Fredericton to see what we have on display. Apart from discussions about the new varieties, our visitors also enjoyed the information they received from the host speakers at the event.”
Specialists at the event spoke about potential funding opportunities for market development of the new varieties, potatoes and nutrition, and current and expected market and retail trends in the potato sector.
Notable varieties on display included a variety with a low-glycemic index, a red-fleshed potato, a high-starch potato for industrial use, as well as varieties for the fresh market and the processing industry.
Bizimungu sees the low-glycemic potato as a niche product that could eventually be suitable for diabetics, creating a new market for farmers. He notes that a low-glycemic-index diet has without doubt become a market trend, especially since research shows that this type of diet has a range of benefits, including weight loss and diabetes management. “Consumers are [becoming] aware that low-GI foods digest slowly, since they don’t create a big spike of insulin in the body. Potato marketers can cash in on this trend,” he says.
The low-GI potato has a moderate glycemic index of 65 when served hot, and a very low GI of 34 when served cold. It has a white skin with cream flesh, and matures early. Tubers are round and small- to medium-sized with very low incidence of hollow heart.
Bizimungu also singles out one of the new varieties that shows promise for the starch industry. “Recently, we had several requests of interest in a variety that might be suitable for use in the starch industry,” he says. “I firmly believe that this might be yet another potential niche industry for entrepreneurs that might bear fruit. The release of this new variety is very timely.”
Private potato breeders in Canada are also focusing some of their efforts on developing new varieties for niche markets. Jacob Vanderschaaf is the founder of The Little Potato Company in Edmonton, which specializes in the production and marketing of small potatoes. “We are constantly on the lookout for new varieties that show promise for this niche market,” he says.
Vanderschaaf started a niche breeding program through his company, Tuberosum Technologies, several years ago. His aim is to increase the efficiency of the potato “at its starting point”—genetics. The company’s efforts are also focused on developing new functional varieties—nutritionally-enhanced potatoes that deliver health benefits.
Vanderschaaf is one of 11 individuals who recently formed the Canadian Private Potato Breeders’ Network. Across Canada, there are at least six Canadian private potato breeding programs conducted by individuals with extensive academic credentials and with in-depth practical knowledge of potato breeding and production. Of the varieties developed by private Canadian breeders, 5,000 to 10,000 are currently grown in Canada and in the United States.
The network, according to a statement released in December, “has been created so the participants can gain knowledge and enter into working relationships with each other, and with AAFC and CFIA of the federal government, to pursue common goals in areas of research associated with the breeding of new varieties of potatoes in Canada.”
Extensive dialogue occurs among the private breeders, who share a number of common goals, including breeding for resistance to diseases such as common scab, late blight, verticillium wilt, black scurf and PVY, among other pests, such as the potato cyst nematode. There is also interest by some programs in the development of coloured fingerlings and other small potatoes for the niche marketplace.
Philippe Parent, a private potato breeder based in Quebec and also a member of the newly launched network, has developed a new variety named DarkRed Chieftain, a niche fresh market variety that keeps its red skin colour longer than Chieftain. According to Parent, who began work breeding DarkRed Chieftain in 2002, the variety’s flesh colour is very white after harvesting. It is very tolerant to glycoalkaloid development and more drought resistant than Chieftain. Commercial seed multiplication is underway this season at several sites in Canada and the United States, and commercial seed lots will be available next year.
Parent focuses on potential fresh market varieties in his breeding program and believes there are a few promising candidates. “I will be very pleased when this variety is introduced into the marketplace,” he says. “As a breeder, I believe that any variety that looks good and tastes well has potential.”
“Forward-thinking breeders have worked hard to collect and characterize the potato crop’s genetic wealth, preserving it in modern climate-controlled conservation facilities and in cultivated gene banks,” says Zandstra. “The results of their efforts are felt each and every day, as our potato breeders use the genetic material from thousands of traditional, wild and modern potato varieties to fashion improvements, ranging from drought tolerance and pest resistance to better digestibility and flavour.”