Researchers in New Brunswick develop beetle-resistant potato plants
Research scientists with Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada (AAFC) have developed two varieties of potato plants with built-in beetle resistance that could help lower pesticide use and reduce the number of potato plants destroyed by pests each year.
Dr. Helen Tai, who works out of the Fredericton Research and Development Centre, said the development of the new varieties is timely with growing concern surrounding the use of pesticides on crops, and said research has been done to develop the plants for approximately 30 years.
“These are plants that we’ve been working on for a long time,” Tai said.
Tai said the beetles can destroy 30 to 50 per cent in yields.
“The potato is worth $1 billion to the economy so a 30 to 50 per cent loss in yield is a fairly significant one across the board,” Tai said.
She said a loss of that percentage in yield is whether or not a grower can make any money in a season and whether or not they have a crop failure.
“It is a fairly devastating loss. Some of the profit margins are not that high on potato so if you do suffer [a high percentage] in yield, it’s pretty hard to absorb in your farm operation,” Tai said.
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She said the need for new solutions lead to the cross-breeding of a “wild potato relative,” with common popular potato varieties to create a plant the beetles find “yucky” and “disgusting.”
“It took a lot of years to cross the two together so the wild relative with the potato doing the crossing using pollen on flowers and just continually selecting,” Tai said.
Tai said this isn’t a new problem and the beetle goes wherever the potato goes. She said the beetle has been around for a long time and originated in Mexico.
Tai said it involves using “wild material” from South America and said the new plants are naturally bred and not genetically modified. She said they don’t do genetic modification in their breeding program.
“There are a lot of issues surrounding the beetle and controlling the beetle, and we’re hoping that by moving toward resistant varieties that we can get a better way to control the beetle problem,” Tai said.
AAFC Potato Breeder & Gene Resources Curator Benoît Bizimungu works with Dr. Tai in Fredericton. Bizimungu said the beetles are a huge problem and said growers have to apply lots of chemicals to their plants so they can produce a good crop.
He said the work he, Dr. Tai and their colleagues are doing is really to develop a crop that will withstand the potato beetles so that it has genetic resistance to the pests.
Tai said she’s heard a lot from [the] industry that they are concerned about reductions in pesticide usage that’s going to be required, and said she and her fellow research scientists are hoping to be able to be part of that solution.
“This isn’t the first time there’s been concern over use of different kinds of pesticides. I think that we would all like to move towards using lower amounts of inputs, especially pesticides and things like that. This is a general concern for us and a goal for us within our breeding program is to breed in that increased amount of resistance,” Tai said.
In an email statement from Potatoes New Brunswick executive director Matt Hemphill said the beetles cost growers “hundreds of thousands of dollar per year in damages.”
“The efforts of Dr. Tai and others are instrumental in controlling this pest and therefore increasing both our quality and yields in New Brunswick,” Hemphill said.
New Brunswick Potato Transformations lead Joe Brennan told Global News the work being done is important and said the goal is to become more competitive in the marketplace, and said things that can be done to reduce costs and increase yield is a step in the right direction.
“If these traits can be introduced into varieties that are accepted in the marketplace and growers can grow them without the extra cost and the environmental risk or challenge or more chemicals, then everybody wins,” Brennan said.
He said growers, unfortunately, have to use chemicals to manage the pests and said if these varieties can have resistant characteristics in them, then it negates the reasons to use chemicals.
Tai said there’s been a lot of public interest already. She hopes there will be interest from industry as well as the Accelerated Release Program coming up in February.
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