Glum Outlook for European Potato Crop
Potato production has faced difficult challenges this season across Europe as well as the United Kingdom. Extreme weather conditions have been commonplace with variable yields, sizes, quality and availability of potatoes among the key concerns experienced this year. Total plantings were down in countries comprising the North-Western European Potato Growers, while yields are also expected to be lower in each country. The NEPG, representing the five leading potato-producing countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain and Holland), has estimated that the total table and processing potato harvest could be 22.9 million tonnes—14.5 per cent lower than last season. The estimate was made at the NEPG’s last meeting on September 11, held at Villers-Saint-Christophe, France, during Potato Europe 2012. Although the lower area and yields are resulting in a strong market price, not all growers will benefit. A large part of the NEPG harvest is contracted against fixed prices and with lower-than-average yields expected, lower volumes may be available for free-market use. The NEPG expects high demand this season from the processing industry and export markets. The raw material processing requirement for Belgium and the Netherlands may, for the first time in history, be higher than the estimated total harvest in these countries. Therefore, imports from neighbouring countries are likely to be required.
GM Potato Research Update
Research on genetically modified potatoes continues in several European countries, despite resistance from environmentally-conscious groups. One year after the protest against GM test fields in Belgium, the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) has been given the green light for a second phase of research. The VIB test trials are being conducted in collaboration with BASF, the Ghent University and College and the Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research. In May last year, the go-ahead was given for trials on GM potatoes resistant to late blight to test the activity of various combinations of resistance factors under Belgian soil and climate conditions. At the time, protesters from the Field Liberation Movement destroyed a large section of these fields, leading to continued resistance toward GM potatoes.
In early September it was reported that a trial plot of GM potatoes at Norfolk’s John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom, designed to test the potatoes’ ability to withstand late blight, has demonstrated some success. The test plants have withstood “the worst attack of late blight seen for decades,” according to a spokesperson for the research team. The trial, now in its third year, involves a total of 192 potato plants. According to the team lead, Jonathan Jones, late blight “was wreaking havoc in all the plants that are non-GM.” The project team plans to submit a report on the trials to the Royal Society’s proceedings journal later this year once the full results have been analyzed.
Research into the development of new potato varieties resistant to late blight is also ongoing at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, reportedly with promising results. The Wageningen GM potatoes were developed through “Cisgenesis,” a novel technique that is being used by researchers to breed new varieties. Cisgenesis differs from “transgenesis,” a technique which involves the use of genes from foreign species in developing new plant varieties. The genes used for breeding the Wageningen potatoes are derived from wild potatoes resistant to Phytophthora infestans.
A controversial study into the environmental impact of GM potatoes in Oak Park, Carlow, Ireland began in August, led by the agricultural development body Teagasc. A total of 24 GM potato plants with improved resistance to late blight were planted alongside conventional potato plants. The study will examine the impact of the GM potatoes on the soil, particularly on its bacterial, fungal and earthworm diversity. The trial was widely criticized by environmental groups and organic producers when it received permission to proceed from the Environmental Protection Agency in July.
Sources: Expatica / Eveningnews24.co.uk / Vroege Vogels / The Irish Times
Novel Potato Apps
In the United Kingdom, British farmers growing potatoes for PepsiCo’s Walkers Crisps are trialing a new smartphone app this season. The app is designed to help them better predict future harvests and improve the sustainability of PepsiCo’s supply chain. Using the app, growers can easily photograph and analyze the ground coverage of the potato leaf canopy to accurately predict crop development—a job that until now has been carried out manually. The tool was developed by researchers at Cambridge University and digital mapping company Landmark on behalf of PepsiCo, as part of the food and drink giant’s efforts to cut its carbon emissions and water usage in water-stressed areas. The app enables farmers to more accurately forecast crop yield using digital images and modeling techniques, according to David Firman, who led its development at Cambridge University. By more closely monitoring crop health, PepsiCo predicts farmers will be able to optimize water and fertilizer use on their crops, delivering net savings over time.
Plant pathologist Leah Tsror at the Agricultural Research Organization, Volcani Center in Bet-Dagan, Israel, recently made available an app that identifies potato pests and provides information on diseases and disorders with accompanying images that can be magnified to view details up close. The app is said to be a practical tool for farmers, advisors, researchers and students. It is compatible with iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPod touch and iPad.
“Spray Guide,” developed in cooperation with Simplot and Precision Laboratories in the United States, is an app that can quickly and accurately identify the ideal mixing order of crop protection products. The app is said to be the first of its kind designed to help users with proper tank mixing sequences and to maintain accurate spray logs for easy record keeping. Handheld devices can be used to instantly document and share data on products sprayed, location and weather conditions. The spray log features a stopwatch to record start and stop times as well as total spraying times. The app has other valuable features, such as weather information, which helps growers reduce spray drift risks by relaying and capturing weather conditions prior to spraying. The app is suitable for iPhone and Android smartphones.
Sources: Business Green / Leah Tsror / Simplot