Development of Disease- and Pest-Resistant Potatoes

Posted on: February 20th, 2012 by Annette Welsford No Comments
All living organisms are prone to certain diseases, not least of which is the humble potato which, by the way, is the fourth largest crop in the world after wheat, rice and corn! In fact the potato is prone to so many different diseases, and is attacked by so many lethal pests, that horticulturists have made it their business to develop many varieties of disease-resistant potato.

Defender, a blight-resistant variety of potato, thrives in a bed where all the other varieties have been killed by late blight. Photograph credit: USDA.

Potatoes have been attacked by various pests and diseases for centuries. The most infamous disease is probably late blight, a fungal condition which is said to have caused the great Irish Potato Famine in 1845. There are a myriad of others, some also fungal, but many others that are either viral or bacterial.

Similarly there are a host of pests that can kill crops, including the Columbia root-knot nematode, which, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service, costs US potato growers (many of which are family farms) as much as US$20-million every year. And as the USDA is quick to point out, potatoes are the number one veggie crop in America, with consumers devouring as much as 130 lbs or 60 kg per person annually.
The Shift from Chemical Control to Disease-resistant Varieties
For more than a century, fungicides and fumigants have been the first line of defense for farmers striving to rid their potato crops of disease and pests. But like most chemical pesticides and other formulas, resistance has built up over the decades. In addition to this, there are growing concerns worldwide about the effect harmful pesticides have on the environment and our Planet as a whole.
This, says the USDA, has “prompted the search for sustainable solutions in the form of genetic resistance.”
Not only are their researchers developing potato varieties that will resist pests and diseases, they are also concentrating on generally improving the nutrient content of these potatoes.
The First Potato Resistant to Late Blight
In 2006, the USDA released the first potato cultivar that was resistant to late blight. Called Defender, it has enabled potato farmers to markedly reduce their use of fungicides and other chemicals they were previously forced to use in an endeavour to control late blight.
The USDA has also announced that it hopes to release at least one more blight-resistant potato variety in the next couple of years. They also hope to come up with potato varieties that are resistant to common scab and to the virus Y, amongst other things.
Many countries have standards for disease-free and disease-resistant potatoes, so before you invest in new potato “seeds”, investigate whether any disease-resistant types are available in your part of the world.
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