UK Researchers Increase Potato Yields Using Less Water
One-quarter of the total water used annually by the agricultural industry in England and Wales is applied to potatoes—currently 75 million tonnes. The scale of water consumption for potato production is enormous, accounting for 56 per cent of the total water used for irrigation—equivalent to filling 30,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools each year. Scientists at East Malling Research, located in Kent, England, have shown it is possible to produce one tonne of Grade 1 potatoes using just 23 tonnes of water—significantly less than the current industry average of 42 to 60 tonnes.
The researchers also increased the yield from the industry standard of 45 to 50 tonnes per hectare to 78 tonnes per hectare. “The potato trials, now in their second year, demonstrate that with water scheduling and drip fertigation it is possible to dramatically reduce the amount of water and chemicals applied to potatoes commercially. As well as saving money for the growers, our trials show they can increase revenues, thanks to a major increase in yields and maintenance of quality,” says Mark Else, a research leader at EMR.
The researchers are confident that by the end of the three-year trial in 2011, EMR will have produced a set of guidelines and techniques to help growers using drip irrigation to understand when and how much water to apply. The guidelines will take into account rainfall and optimum soil moisture content to deliver the quality and quantity of potatoes expected by growers and supermarkets. “It also impacts the issue of food security because with the changing climate farmers need to have the techniques to grow more while using less. With the population rising and potatoes such a staple part of many people’s diets, it is essential we increase yields and reduce our reliance on imports,” says Chris Atkinson, head of science at EMR.
Carisma Causing a Stir in Australia
The recent launch of Australia’s first officially certified low glycemic index potato, named Carisma, has been a success. The variety’s low GI qualities were uncovered by the Sydney University GI Research Service, and it is the only potato to be officially recognized as having a low GI by the Glycemic Index Foundation. Carisma is touted as a great tasting potato with a GI of 55—about 30 per cent lower than other potatoes.
The new variety is a hit with Australian consumers, who have bought more than 1,000 tonnes of Carisma. The Mitolo Group, a potato and onion packing company based in South Australia, is instrumental in keeping the supply of Carisma flowing into important retail outlets. According to Frank Mitolo, director of The Mitolo Group, Carisma held significant appeal well before it was known to be a low GI variety. “We were interested in Carisma before we completed the GI testing because it tastes and looks great,” says Mitolo. “We’re proud to be growing Carisma and making this versatile, great tasting, low GI potato available to Australians.”
This potato appeals to millions of consumers watching their weight or buying low GI products for other health reasons, such as diabetes.
Success for PepsiCo on its Path to Zero
With the launch of the Path to Zero program in 2009 by PepsiCo UK and Ireland, the makers of Walkers and Red Sky potato chips, the company set a number of challenging environmental goals for the next decade. Over the past two years, the company has made great progress and is on its path to zero in terms of water, waste and energy consumption.
According to Richard Evans, president of PepsiCo UK and Ireland, the company has reduced its total energy consumption by 7.3 per cent, landfill waste by 88 per cent and total water consumption by 14.6 per cent. The company currently gets four per cent of its energy and 17 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources. To reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, PepsiCo UK has replaced about 50 per cent of its transportation fleet with new low-emission and fuel-efficient vehicles. The company pledges to reduce its water consumption to zero and disconnect its production facilities from the water grid by 2018. Water from potatoes will be reused at processing facilities. And last year, the company started work on developing a technology to extract water contained in potatoes. The technology has been tested with success and is being implemented at the company’s factories.
Another key commitment is to make product packaging 100 per cent renewable, compostable and recyclable by 2018. The company is testing several new packaging types, such as paper-based packaging, and it is researching renewable packaging for Walkers potato chips using potato peelings.
Thailand Approves Seed Potato Imports
In early February, the Government of Thailand announced approval of seed potato shipments from the states of Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming to Thailand. In 2009, Thailand approved imported seed potatoes from California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Officials with the Thai Ministry of Agriculture visited New York, Colorado, Wisconsin and Maine in July 2010 to review the seed certification procedures, seed cultivation practices and phytosanitary inspection processes in those states.
State potato grower organizations, growers, state departments of agriculture and seed certification officials in these states deserve much of the credit for the success of the visit. Work by the United States Department of Agriculture employees in the Foreign Agricultural Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service also helped secure greater access for U.S. seed potatoes into that country.
Thailand is one of the largest potato-producing countries in Southeast Asia, with annual production averaging around 120,000 metric tons per year. It imported 3,188 metric tons of seed from July 2009 to June 2010. The majority of those imports came from the European Union and Canada. According to the National Potato Council in the United States, this latest action by the Thai government will allow U.S. seed potato growers to better compete with their foreign counterparts.
Pumping Up Potatoes in Developing Nations
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional disorder in the world, affecting 50 per cent of pregnant women and 40 per cent of preschool children in developing countries, according to the World Health Organization. Health consequences of iron deficiency include impaired physical and cognitive development, increased risk of disease in children, and reduced work productivity in adults. In the Peruvian highlands, up to 60 per cent of preschool children suffer the stunting effects of malnutrition, with iron deficiency as the main contributing factor. Since potatoes are naturally good sources of iron, the International Potato Center is working to add further nutritional value through breeding, or biofortification, of potato varieties.
The bioavailability of iron in potatoes can be greater than that from cereals and legumes. Potatoes have high levels of ascorbic acid, which promotes iron absorption. They also have low levels of phytic acid, which inhibits iron absorption. CIP’s breeding efforts are focused on finding varieties that are rich in iron concentration and bioavailability.
Five years ago, CIP began to screen the potato germplasm in its gene bank for micronutrients (iron, zinc, vitamin C and phenolics). The initial screening of 579 native Andean potato varieties and 315 improved varieties showed a wide variation for iron and zinc concentration, and a large genetic diversity that could be exploited in breeding programs. According to CIP agronomist Walter Amorós, the researchers were able to achieve varieties with iron levels as high as 40 milligrams per kilogram after two selection cycles from a baseline iron content of 19 mg/kg. The future challenge is to combine these cultivars with CIP’s advanced breeding lines that have disease and pest resistance, high yield, and high acceptance by farmers.
Industry Consultant and Writer