The days of a few big varieties dominating the potato market are over, with breeding programmes becoming more focused on delivering sustainable varieties for specific markets.
Potato Council figures show a steady, if not spectacular, decline in Maris Piper and Estima over recent years, although in 2011 they still accounted for about one-fifth of the total UK area.
Potato markets are becoming increasingly diverse, with the emergence of pre-packed salad varieties taking up a large share of the fresh market in recent years, for example.
“Gemson and Pioneer, both salad varieties, have been bred with that market in mind and that trend is likely to continue. Markets are becoming increasingly specialised, with very specific husbandry requirements to meet specifications,” says Finlay Dale, principal potato breeder at the James Hutton Institute.
“Also, McCain’s have two newer varieties that suit their factories, with one being early-maturing and high-yielding and the other storing much better at lower temperatures, therefore needing less chemical treatment and bridging the gap into the following season.
“The factories need to run for 365 days of the year now, so these additions will allow that to happen more efficiently than before,” adds Dr Dale.
If growers are considering a new variety, Dr Dale advises trying a small amount first to see how it performs. “If you subsequently see that it suits your land and yields well then consider adopting it more widely, but you must have a market for it.
“The number of growers producing potatoes speculatively is narrowing right down, with supermarkets and processors wanting continuity at a set price. About 75-80% has been grown under contract this year,” explains Dr Dale.
In addition to meeting market demands, breeders also need to satisfy the call for sustainable intensification.
“We are carrying out fundamental and long-term research, in partnership with the industry as a whole, with the aim of economic and environmental sustainability for the production of potatoes,” says Dr Dale.
“We need to be producing varieties that require less chemicals for the control of blight, potato cyst nematode and storage problems. They also need to require less nutrients and ironically, despite this year’s waterlogging, drought resistance,” explains Dr Dale.
Potatoes – proportionately – use more water and nutrients such as phosphate than any other crop, points out Dr Dale, and despite the wet year more efficient water use should remain a priority.
“From a breeding and research point of view, we can’t take our eyes off the ball in this area, as water is one of our most valuable assets and we have been throwing it around like it has gone out of fashion.
“In the next three to five years we will be trying to tag the genetics that produce traits such as drought-tolerance, nitrogen-use efficiency, increased yield and tuber initiation to speed up the breeding process,” he says.
Although reducing chemical, fertiliser and water inputs is the main priority for potato breeders, the process of bringing new varieties to market could be achieved much more rapidly with the introduction of GM technology.
“Never have we seen a season where we need a blight-resistant variety such as this one. The disease pressure has been huge,” says Allan Stevenson, chairman of the Potato Council.
“There is nothing sustainable about trying to travel across fields 15-20 times to apply blight sprays when ground conditions are completely unsuitable.
“The Potato Council position is very clear. We want to see the scientific research within the industry accelerated to help deliver solutions to the problems that we face, but we need to ensure that the work is carried out in the proper, controlled environment,” he says.
The collaboration between the commercial industry and the publicly funded James Hutton Institute in the current, conventional breeding programmes could provide a solution to those challenging GM on the basis of who holds the rights to the genetics produced from GM programmes.
“It would be a collaboration between the public and private sectors, which would mean any rights would be partly owned by the public, allaying any fears of a Monsanto-type monopoly,” says Mr Stevenson.
“We must find the solutions to people’s concerns and be as transparent as possible with what we are trying to achieve.”
As a plant breeder, Dr Dale is also pro-GM. “We have the industry approaching us and asking us for the specific traits, but we just can’t deliver that immediately.
“GM is just about being smart. The science is sound and it’s all about taking one gene from a potato plant and putting it into another potato plant. What is the issue?” he asks.
“We need to have this debate now.”