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Looking ahead: Alberta-based research scientists working on new potato varieties for B.C. growers

Alberta-based scientists working on new potato varieties


April 24, 2008
By Peter Mitham

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The problems of the future are being avoided today, thanks to the work of federal researchers in Lethbridge, Alta.

bizimungu
Dr. Bizimungu

The problems of the future are being avoided today, thanks to the work of federal researchers in Lethbridge, Alta.

Dr. Benoît Bizimungu, a research scientist at the Lethbridge research centre of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, told growers assembled for the British Columbia Potato And Vegetable Growers’ Association conference last November that research into new potato varieties helps them remain competitive and a step ahead of future problems.

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New potato varieties can help industry remain productive and competitive, Dr. Bizimungu said.

Major potato varieties in B.C. include Chieftain, Shepody, Yukon Gold and Norland, which find outlets on both the fresh market and with processors. The province is also a major producer of seed potatoes.

Just a fraction of the 356 varieties of potato currently registered in Canada are grown in B.C., but neither the varieties currently grown nor all those registered for use are suitable, Dr. Bizimungu said.

Norland, for example, isn’t the most attractive spud, and isn’t a good keeper. It is also susceptible to disease. But Chieftain, another fresh market variety that’s favoured because it is less susceptible to disease, is also less attractive than Norland and difficult to store.

Getting around the various shortcomings is where breeding research plays a part, Dr. Bizimungu said.

“We hope to help the industry lower their production risk,” he said, summarizing the goals of federal potato breeding activities.

But breeding programs for potatoes typically require more time than for other crops.

Alta Crown, an alternative to Russet Burbank, was selected from a 1992 cross but wasn’t named and released until 2007. Similarly, Northstar, an alternative to Atlantic, has its origins in a 1986 cross but was only released two decades later, in 2006.

The longer breeding time required necessitates closer attention to the properties being selected.
“It takes 20 years to develop new varieties so we need to see what are the next issues,” Dr. Bizimungu said.

Some of the forward-looking goals of researchers include identifying traits for new varieties that will address potential restrictions on pesticide and fertilizer use, as well as constraints on water supplies.

Researchers are also trying to identify selections suitable for an aging population, including the tendency to digest slowly and deliver a steadier boost to levels of blood sugar – a characteristic that would make them more suitable for diabetics.

New strains of late blight and new varieties of nematodes are also requiring researchers to seek selections that will be able to address these challenges with fewer chemical inputs.

Breeders have already enjoyed some successes in developing alternatives to existing varieties.

“For most of the varieties released we can say that some of the goals have been achieved, especially for maturity, yields, defects,” Dr. Bizimungu said.

Several alternatives to the famed Russet Burbank have been released, for example. These include the fresh market varieties Alta Crown and Pacific Russet, the latter being released in 2003. Alta Russet is a new alternative suitable for processing.

The red-skinned AC Peregrine has shown promise as a fresh-market alternative to Norland.
Other successes are yet to come.

While good progress is being made on alternatives to Atlantic, a white fresh-market and chipping variety, Dr. Bizimungu said further work is required.

“We’re trying to combine as many positive traits as possible,” he explained. “I think in the near future we’re going to release some new varieties with new traits.”

However, federal researchers have released no selections to date that would let growers expand fresh market access. While there are a number of promising selections, none are yet available.

Similarly, some varieties have special traits, such as colour, and other properties that promise to let growers tap into niche markets, but these aren’t at a point where Lethbridge researchers wish to release them.

Dr. Bizimungu stressed the importance of partnerships among research scientists, with industry and the distributors who make new cultivars available to growers.

The development of better potatoes for local growers means those growers are better able to meet the needs of local markets, Dr. Bizimungu said. This reduces retailers’ reliance on imported potatoes and creates opportunities for domestic growers and others in the industry.