The humble potato is a miracle – but science can make it even better

So humble Tattie already had a huge impact on world history, and combined with the fascinating science that underlies how we use them, I wonder why they’re considered so humble.

Potatoes are loved by many and across the country, usually in simple garden boxes or pots (egg cartons are also popular), thousands of potatoes are stacked in cool places and ‘chattering’ happily – often for up to six weeks. In case you’re wondering, “chit” means forcing your seed potatoes (small potato tubers, rather than actual seeds) to grow 1-2 cm shoots indoors.

Effectively, it gives them a head start on planting in the garden. Peak outdoor planting season in the UK is about to start now and the first potatoes to be harvested are commonly referred to as ‘new’ potatoes as they are the very first to be harvested in June and only take 9-13 weeks to grow.
As the cost-of-living crisis deepens, horticultural experts expect the number of us growing our own vegetables this year could reach the highest level in decades; and our old favorite, the potato – if you’ve got a bit of space to play with, even as small as a corner of your yard – will likely top that list.

Of course, in the past we have traditionally done “grow it yourself” well and in large numbers, especially in times of national need.
The government’s famous “Dig for Victory” campaign during World War II encouraged people to produce their own food. As a result, almost a fifth of Britain’s wartime fruit and vegetable supply was grown by households. As food inflation continues to rise – seemingly unabated with every ring of the register – one could argue that we are once again a troubled nation that needs to save wherever possible. And there are many other benefits of home growing in terms of fresh air and positive effects on our mental health.

Scotland has always been good for potato growing and at the James Hutton Institute, right in the heart of Scotland’s most important potato country, in Invergowrie, just west of Dundee, we are undoubtedly the national experts leading research on what can be done to improve the improve supply. Quality and resilience of this popular national crop.

Read more: We need permanent solutions to our food shortage problems

The dramatically changing weather around the world will cause more heat stress, which, along with drought and flooding, will significantly increase the incidence of potato diseases and pests. Add in the more difficult trade caused by Brexit and the impact of the war in Ukraine on our various supply chains and the British potato is not only threatened, it may be dying out in our lifetime if we don’t adapt .

It was the Scottish economist Adam Smith who said of them in his acclaimed The Wealth of Nations in 1776: “No foodstuff can afford more conclusive proof of its nutritive quality, or of its special aptitude for the health of the human constitution.” And even today they attest recent industry headlines, the simple but powerful position the potato still holds in modern British life. In fact, it is the third most important staple food in the world and the most important single crop in terms of food produced per unit area.
The value of UK potato products, both fresh and processed, is around £3 billion a year, with potato production generating more than £700 million in income for farmers. The cultivation and processing of potatoes accounts for almost a third of the country’s total cultivated area.

Fourteen million Britons currently consume frozen crisp products at least once a week and in Scotland the seed potato industry is worth £250 million a year, driven by a particularly strong seed potato export market, which is recognized as one of the best quality in the world. Being disease free is important when producing seed potatoes and Scotland’s leading position here is due to our relatively colder climate and cleaner soil.

However, yield increases in potatoes have not been able to keep up with those of other crops, largely due to their complex genetics. Brexit has cut annual UK exports worth around £42million. There are 250 registered seed potato growers in the UK, 80% of them in Scotland, but Scottish seed potatoes are now banned from export to their main market, the EU. Add to that rising fuel and fertilizer prices, which are driving up production costs even more, and many farmers are now wondering if they should grow potatoes at all.
Researchers, breeders and breeding companies need to adopt the new breeding technologies to dramatically improve the production of new strains and sustainable practices that can withstand climate changes. To this end, the James Hutton Institute proposes the urgent establishment of a National Potato Innovation Center (NPIC), bringing together all of UK science and industry to help the sector.
Detailed plans and goals for the NPIC are already in place – ‘ready to cook’, as politicians might say, to focus on rapidly adapting existing breeds and creating new breeds better suited to improved and more sustainable modern production systems, while also pioneering them nature-based approaches for optimal plant and pest management.

Our scientists have already made major global breakthroughs in developing new potato varieties that are resistant to several of the world’s most damaging natural enemies. These include a highly destructive pest – the potato cyst nematode (PCN), a parasitic roundworm that feeds and reproduces on potato roots.
The area of ​​seed potatoes in Scotland infested with PCN is doubling every seven years, so action is urgently needed. Our team has succeeded in creating a new pipeline of potato varieties that are better able to withstand the evolving threat of PCN and meet the demanding standards of growers, buyers and consumers for yield and taste.

Read more: Scotland is at the forefront of agricultural innovation

It has also played a crucial role in alerting farmers worldwide to the emergence of new and aggressive strains of what is known as ‘late blight’ – the particularly virulent potato disease that led to the Irish potato famine more than two centuries ago.

It is caused by a fast-spreading type of aquatic mold known as “plant killer” (Phytophthora), which can infect both potatoes and tomatoes, quickly killing plants. It is the single most serious threat to potato production, resulting in an estimated annual global industrial cost of up to £8 billion from a combination of crop losses and treatment of the disease with fungicides and other measures.
We have also demonstrated heat, drought and disease resistant potato lines that meet market demands and are adapted to growing in the warmer climates of sub-Saharan Africa, which could lift millions more out of food insecurity.

So the next time you hold a potato in your hand, think of the power it brings to people. With the modern tools and the wide variety of potato varieties maintained at the James Hutton Institute, we have the means to improve the resilience and sustainability of our future potato crops.

Professor Lesley Torrance is Scientific Director at the James Hutton Institute—science-can-still-improve/?ref=rss The humble potato is a miracle – but science can make it even better

Adam Bradshaw

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