The future of potato growing

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04 April 2022
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Antonia Walker, Bayer’s campaign manager for potatoes, discusses upcoming innovations to support profitable potato growing in the UK in a recent blog.

ANTONIA said potatoes will "most definitely" be an important crop in the future. "The potato is the UK’s most popular vegetable by a considerable margin and while there may be some demographic challenges to overcome if it is to retain this position (it is most often consumed by those over 55 years, according to data from Kantar), it is eaten for enjoyment more than any other vegetable," she said.

"The UK is geared very well for potato production with a professional network of growers, seed producers and processors who can meet exacting market demands' so there is every reason to believe that the potato will remain a regular feature of the farming landscape."

She said it would be remiss not to recognise some of the current challenges and the significance they will have on grower attitudes. Rising labour costs, energy and inputs will all threaten investment and test commitment and a market correction will be needed at some point to restore margins and maintain grower confidence.

But on the positive side, she believes UK processors are amongst the most efficient and innovative in the developed world and this should be seen as a commitment to the sector and a sign of future confidence. 

"Potatoes are a resource-hungry and environmentally-challenging crop to grow. While growers have made great strides in protecting soils and cutting carbon emissions with other crops, the actions that enabled these advances are not so easily applied to potatoes. How we as an industry catch up with others will be seen as an indicator of the potato’s sustainability and the ability of those involved to maintain its place as the nation’s favourite vegetable," she said, adding that Bayer is actively developing solutions to "challenges far beyond our core competence of crop protection".

Funds invested in research by companies of all sizes will lead to breakthroughs that will benefit farmers, society and the planet, she said, citing two near-to-market examples from Bayer - a new digital platform FieldView and its ForwardFarming project in Belgium where it is actively developing a model that will enable farmers to trade carbon credits with companies further up the supply chain to support carbon-neutral potatoes. A key feature of FieldView is that it will enable growers to scrutinise the impact of changes to production practices.

"This will enable a gradual improvement in resource use efficiency through the more targeted use of inputs such as water, fertiliser and crop protection," said Antonia.

"New innovations in application technology will further improve the environmental sustainability of crop production practices. These will deliver cost savings to the grower through more efficient use of inputs while enabling them to maintain production against a backdrop of ever-tightening environmental legislation.

"Drip irrigation systems, for example, represent a more efficient means of delivering water. The potato sector has a poor track record in water use efficiency. Reform of abstraction licences and the removal of headroom volume will change this by driving efforts to make better use of one of nature’s scarcest resources. Drip irrigation systems are not cheap, but the efficiencies they offer are unparalleled.

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In terms of crop protection, Antonia believes the ongoing loss of active substances that are widely regarded as vital to crop protection is unlikely to change.  "The EU has passed legislation that actively seeks to reduce the use of synthetic pesticides and manufactured fertilisers through both product withdrawal and limits on use. This has consequences for products coming to the GB market and also what can be applied if we want to export products to overseas markets.

"At Bayer – as elsewhere – we are investing significant sums in bringing new products to market – in 2021, Bayer spent €5.3 billion on R&D – but there is more to product development than how much cash you spend. It now takes upwards of 13 years to bring a product to market following discovery, by which time the opportunity may have gone or at least be greatly reduced. Given the sums involved in securing product authorisation this serves as a barrier to investment.  The industry could also be better at planning ahead. The future for mancozeb is uncertain while that of metribuzin and, to a lesser extent, fosthiazate are also of concern given their respective roles in controlling weeds and managing pests."

Soil-borne pests are a particular focus and the need for long rotations necessitates a reliance on rented land with often limited field history which adds to the challenges of controlling these pests. "New nematicides with new modes of action, like Bayer’s Velum Prime, will not completely replace the protection afforded by the likes of Vydate (oxamyl), which was withdrawn at the end of 2020, but will be an essential part of a truly holistic approach to integrated pest management (IPM).   Alongside accurate soil testing and the use of varieties with strong resistance and tolerance to both species of PCN, Velum Prime will be a cornerstone of a sustainable approach to PCN management moving forward," Antonia said.

"Soil diseases that cause skin blemishes are typically a focus of retailers because they spoil the appearance of tubers in-store and make them less attractive to consumers. Even though they may not cause significant yield loss in the field, they can result in high levels of wastage or crop being diverted into other channels. A dwindling list of conventional fungicides able to protect against bacterial diseases means finding biological products with good activity against these threats to production. There is a disclaimer that applies to all biologicals: these products do not offer a level of efficacy to match synthetic active substances. Growers and retailers will need to adapt production practices to reflect this reality. Practising high standards of IPM with all pests and disease control programmes will become the norm, not the exception."

Constantly evolving strains of late blight put foliar fungicides under increasing pressure. Disease monitoring and the adherence to resistance management policies is fundamental to preserving the efficacy of the products we have today and those of the future, she said, adding that the use of in-field weather stations able to measure the humidity within the canopy, coupled with accurate location-specific forecasts, will support the informed strategy and the diligent use of fungicides.

"Understanding which blight genotype is dominant in your area is of increasing importance. With this knowledge, growers and advisers can better understand the risks to the crop and plan resistance management strategies accordingly. Preserving crop quality in store has been the headline issue in recent years. We see that many growers are still finding their way through this problem. Plant oils and other storage products may have a role to play, but to protect profitability in an era of soaring energy costs, we need to find a way to store crops at ambient temperatures without losing quality.

Source: Bayer Crop Science UK