Advances in breeding technology should help quicken the pace of developments in potato varieties, says Gerard Backx, managing director of potato seed company HZPC.

CISGENESIS

The possibility of using genetic modification techniques to insert genes from within the potato’s natural gene pool (cisgenesis) to create new varieties was raised by Mr Backx. “It can take decades to insert these genes naturally using back-crossing, so it would help a lot.”

But there was debate over whether the technique was genetic modification or not, as only genes that are natural to the potato crop are moved, he said. “In the EU it is considered to be GM, while in the USA it is a different story.”

Unless that changed the technique would have the same restrictions in Europe as GM crops, he noted. 

Varietal improvements in potatoes had happened slower than in other crops, such as cereals, for a number of reasons, he said, not least because on average only 2% of breeder income is put back into new research in potatoes, compared with 6% in cereals, and over 10% in sugar beet and vegetable crops.

Potatoes were also complex genetically, which meant they required complicated crossing schemes, and there were many selection criteria for breeders to focus on, he added.

But recent research into the genetic make-up of potatoes by various research institutes around the world would mean genetic markers, already quite widely used in other crops, would become available for potato breeders to use, he said.

“Once we have markers, breeding will become more efficient and allow advances to accelerate.”

Marker-assisted breeding would allow breeders to work much more on specific usages with potatoes, he added, including targets that affected grower and packer returns, and benefit consumers.

But he warned growers that they would have to carefully manage the supply chain to benefit from better varieties. “With good chain management farmers can profit, but if they over-supply the profits will be lost to others further up the chain.”

trailed potato harvester 
Traits that improve yields and quality in potatoes might be easier for breeders to find with advances in the knowledge of potato genetics.