True Potato Seeds Could Feed the World

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While the future of true potato seeds is still in the distance, experts say they could have major implications for the future.

When it comes to new innovations in the potato sector, true potato seeds comes to mind. The small seeds are newer to growers, and while their future might be further off, they could have giant implications.

“Commercial potato growers should be familiar with production using seed tubers, which are actually a form of vegetative production of plants,” says Helen Tai, a potato genetics and genomics research scientist with Agriculture and Agri Food Canada. “The tuber and the plants derived from the tuber are genetically identical.”

This form of production is called clonal propagation, but the important part to note? That plant also produces flowers, which when pollinated, produce fruit called seed balls.

“Inside these seed balls are hundreds of small seeds that can be sown into the ground to grow another plant,” she says. “This is how a potato propagates itself.”

Those seeds within the seed balls are where true potato seed comes from and is just another reproductive strategy for potato plants. Tai says this isn’t a new innovation, as people in the Andes in South America have grown potato from both true potato seed and tubers for thousands of years.

True potato seed vial
True potato seed in a vial. Photo: Solynta

“It’s almost like what’s old is new again,” she says.

But the big key is how true potato seeds could impact global food production for the better.

“True potato seeds can really have a big impact on the global food supply and quality,” says Charles Miller, commercial director of Solynta. “The most obvious and biggest place they can have an impact is in logistics and scaling.”

Twenty-five grams of true potato seed can replace two and a half tons of seed tubers, which are needed to plant one hectare of potatoes, according to Miller. That could reduce transportation and storage, and that reduction could have a bigger impact on reducing the carbon footprint on the planet.

“These tiny seeds can be store and shipped easily,” he says. “Then, the farmer can store those seeds for years just like any vegetable can be stored. True potato seeds alleviate all the headaches that come along with shipping traditional seed tubers.”

In addition, the disease and phytosanitary concerns with true potato seed shipping is drastically lower than shipping tubers.

“There’s really only one transmittable pathogen carried by true potato seed, and that’s potato spindle tuber viroid,” Tai says. “The seed diseases that we typically think of have to do with the tuber. And of course, if you’re using true potato seed, you’ll avoid some of these tuber seed diseases.”

However, a cautionary note Tai has: if you go to true commercial production of true potato seeds, you can develop seedborne diseases.

“Some of these seedborne diseases in tomato, for example — one of those pathogens can take an evolutionary path towards potato,” she says, adding that these aren’t entirely predictable things.

In addition, scaling new products happens quickly.

“We can go from one seed on the pre commercial level all the way to pre commercial launch volumes in 18 months — the traditional market can take years,” Miller says.

When it comes to production, Miller doesn’t think there’s going to be a complete overhaul away from tubers.

Seed ball size
Seed ball size.jpg — A true potato seed ball is about the same size of a nickel. Photo: Helen Tai

“Of course, changing from tubers to these small seeds will have an impact — meaning different types of machines, cultivation, you name it,” he says. “The reality is in the short term, we’re going to see very specific growers change with the advent of true potato seeds.”

Meaning, at the start of true potato seeds, Miller believes you’ll start seeing introduction of new genetics: maybe late blight resistant varieties or varieties specifically for starch. These specialized seed tuber growers will plant true potato seedlings onto their farm, take those to maturity and harvest G1 tubers. Those tubers will be sent into the normal production system potatoes will have today. The advantage? Giving growers a much earlier generation seed tuber.

“By giving the farmers an earlier generation tuber, in theory, they’re going to have much more genetic potential,” Miller says. “Ten years ago, a lot of cabbages were transplanted around the world, and today, most of them are directly sown. It’s not something we haven’t seen before, and when growers see the benefit, they’re quick to notice.”

In the end: will true potato seed have a bright future?

“I do think there’s a very vibrant future,” Tai says. “There is potential for innovation for the potato industry through diploid breeding and true potato seed.  For the U.S. and Canada, there’s also opportunities to look at the genetic improvement and cultivation in remote areas. Really, I think it means diversity in the potato industry, which will give growers a lot of options.”

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