Blog by Eleanor Gilroy, The James Hutton Institute, Scotland, UK.
Many of the potato cultivars that supermarkets and processors know and love are not fit for modern day environmental challenges that growers currently face.
For example, King Edward’s, released in 1902 to coincide with the coronation of King Edward VII, is the 12th most widely grown potato variety in the UK and is one of the oldest surviving cultivars grown in Europe. Although it is very resistant to common scab and displays some resistance to potato blight, it is susceptible to potato cyst nematode and many other potato diseases.
The UK hosts a number of world leading crop research institutes that provide excellent scientific support to the UK and global potato industries. The past 20 years has seen an explosion in genome sequencing technologies (that help us sequence our germplasm collections), new diploid breeding programmes (to resolve past complexities with potato’s tetraploid genetics) and significant advances in gene discovery (that underpin desirable environmental resilience traits). Consequently, scientific advances are significantly speeding up crop improvement of potato to generate more environmentally sustainable potatoes that help growers circumvent today’s climatic, financial and chemical constraints.
So why, in the year of Charles III’s coronation, is a 121-year-old variety still outcompeting new resistant, resilient, and lower input potato varieties for shelf space in our food shops?
The answer lies in the complexity of the potato industry supply chain, but at its heart, is the loyal consumer demand and respect for heritage and much-loved supermarket staple varieties. Breeders struggle to generate market demand for newer varieties even if they can be produced more sustainably. Alternatives to our old favourite varieties are often available, for example, an alternative to King Edwards could be Carousel which is a new, more resilient potato, as it contains the newly deployed BER resistance gene to late blight.
“we can grow great tasting and healthy potatoes, more sustainably for future generations”
The “Super Spuds” event, funded by the BSPP, was run as a rural community event to coincide with British Science week on the 12th March 2023. It was conceived to convey the main message that we can grow great tasting and healthy potatoes, more sustainably for future generations. Science can already provide solutions to many of the challenges faced by today’s potato growers. The event was designed to advocate the acceptance and prioritisation of cleaner and greener potato varieties for large scale cultivation in our fields. I wanted to increase awareness that growing many ‘old’ favourites on the scale necessary to supply supermarkets and processors year-round often comes with extra environmental and financial burdens.
“event designed to advocate the acceptance and prioritisation of cleaner and greener potato varieties for large scale cultivation in our fields.”
The James Hutton Institute hosts the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC). This collection contains a wide range of wild accessions with interesting and useful genetic diversity in traits we need to grow potatoes with less inputs. Many of these interesting traits can be identified easily by eye, such as leaf shape and flower colour. Disease resistant examples of the CPC were on display to highlight the value of germplasm collections.
“many wild potato relatives have secret “super powers” that scientists can discover and use to better fight pests, diseases and other environmental stresses in the fields.”
Scientists from the James Hutton Institute described some of the pests and diseases that occur in potato production and how scientists screen and utilize the CPC to find resistances. The event aimed to highlight that many wild potato relatives have secret “super powers” that scientists can discover and use to better fight pests, diseases and other environmental stresses in the fields.
The super spud event had stalls and activities provided by representatives from a range of local companies/institutions, with growers that grow and sell seed and “ware” potatoes providing a grower’s perspective of the challenges of potato production. The vertical farm manager from Intelligent Growth Solutions, described the need for and the benefits of new technologies in farming and how they will future proof agriculture.
For families, the Newtyle Community NEWCOOK 2 Group provided a range of exciting uses of potato on the day and developed a range of potato recipe sheets for the event and Arbikie highland distillery promoted their potato-based spirits “Tattie bogle vodka” and “Kirsty’s gin”.
For the children there was “spud gun shooting” of potato pests and disease characters, generated by Dionne Turnbull in a tin can alley format. There was “mini villain crafting”, inspired by potato pest and diseases, with modelling clay and face painting. The local Illustrator Laura Darling, currently generating an illustrated book on the history of potato, ran a super hero mask and shield potato-printing workshop to ratify the super hero theme.
The message that plants can fight diseases, and that scientists can find and transfer super powers from wild relatives to commercial cultivars, definitely inspired a new generation of plant scientists in our local area. The theme and materials will be used again to continue to promote the benefits of more modern potato varieties at the Royal Highland Show which is Scotland’s largest outdoor event and best showcase of food, farming, and rural life with as many as 210,000 visitors and at Potatoes in Practise (the UK’s largest field event for potatoes) where growers and trade come to learn about new research. The BSPP hopes that by making these resources freely available, others can utilize them and modify them to suit your own local events and continue to help spread the enthusiasm and cultivate new interest in plants and plant diseases.
Check out our new page on Super Spuds resources, with designs created by Dionne Turnbull and activities created by Eleanor Gilroy.
TITLE IMAGE: Eleanor Gilroy and Gaynor MacKenzie (curator of the Commonwealth potato collection) share the power of “Super Spuds” at a school talk, harnessing the many resources created for the Super Spuds and mini villains workshop. All images used with permission of the author.