Potato growers, many of them among the top tier of innovators, have been working with academics from NIAB CUF, ADAS, the University of Aberdeen and Cranfield to halve the amount of water and carbon used to produce Walkers crisps in just five years. Heather Briggs reports.
There is no instant recipe to reduce the environmental impact of potato production but thanks to teamwork growers and scientists have developed tools to help deliver crops with lower carbon and water footprints. Progress is being made towards a more sustainable way of producing food, according to Mark Pettigrew, PepsiCo’s agricultural sustainability manager for Europe, who led the company’s ‘50-in-Five’ initiative.
Reducing waste at all levels means every farm procedure needs to be involved, from choosing the right variety and sourcing healthy seed to cultivation practices, agronomy, lifting and storage.
Efficiency and sustainability go hand in hand, and Mr Pettigrew is pleased that the sector saw the links between productivity and sustainability by year two of the project, realising that there were advantages to be had from being more efficient with the use of energy, fuel, fertiliser and water.
‘By measuring fertiliser use a number of the growers found they were using 17% too much nitrogen,’ says. ‘Using less fertiliser meant lower costs but with no yield penalty.’
Variety choice is important; not only do varieties need the right taste, texture and colour for consumers, they must also have the right agronomic characteristics, they must yield well and not create waste.
‘The better the yield, the lower the carbon and water footprint per tonne,’ explains Mr Pettigrew. ‘However, you still have to take into account the vulnerability of each variety under consideration to damage and consequently waste.
‘For example, some are more susceptible to damage at harvest, during storage and processing, and one of the key issues about sustainability is that we have to reduce waste right along the food chain.
‘The good news is that we have some really good varieties, with good yields of a uniform size which helps keep waste to a minimum, and helps growers achieve economically sustainable yields. And there are even better varieties on the way, which provide practical solutions as they need less nitrogen, and use less energy, too.’
One of the many challenges comes from potato cyst nematodes (PCN), partly because of a lack of varieties with resistance to Globodera pallida. As a result, crispers such as Agrico’s Arsenal have been well received because they have the added benefit of being among a handful which are resistant.
Developing a new variety is the very long process, Mr Pettigrew points out, usually taking up to 15 years to create a line that will fulfil all the necessary criteria for the company. ‘The first thing we look for is the right taste – if the consumer doesn’t actively prefer it then we do not even keep it in a trial.’
See our January/February edition for the full article