Published on 24th March 2022
The future for potatoes: opportunities and threats
Growing potatoes can sometimes feel like it’s a constant battle. From seed import and export restrictions following the UK’s departure from the European Union
The future for potatoes: opportunities and threats Content
Growing potatoes can sometimes feel like it’s a constant battle. From seed import and export restrictions following the UK’s departure from the European Union to a shrinking armoury of crop protection products and pandemic-induced changes in consumer demand. The headwinds seem to keep getting stronger. Despite these challenges, potatoes can still be a financially rewarding crop and there are good reasons to be optimistic for its future. We talk to Antonia Walker, Bayer’s campaign manager for potatoes, root crops and Dekalb oilseeds, about the upcoming innovations to support profitable potato growing in the UK.
Will growing potatoes still be an important crop of the future?
Yes, most definitely. 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. 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.
There are of course challenges to consider. It would be remiss not to recognise the significance these will have on grower attitudes: the rising cost of labour, energy and inputs will all threaten investment and test commitment. A market correction will be needed at some point to restore margins and maintain grower confidence, while we will need new solutions to old problems to maintain the competitiveness of the crop for the long term.
There are other reasons to be optimistic. Our processors are amongst the most efficient and innovative of any in the developed world. This should be seen as a commitment to the sector and a sign of confidence in the future.
Are we prepared for the future?
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. Meeting this challenge is an area of intense focus, especially at Bayer. We are actively developing solutions to challenges far beyond our core competence of crop protection.
What innovations could support the potato industry in the future?
The research funds invested by companies big and small run to many billions of pounds globally. The breakthroughs that come from this activity will be to the benefit of farmers, society and the planet. Two near-to-market examples of innovations being developed by Bayer is our new digital platform FieldView and our ForwardFarming project in Belgium where we are 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.
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.
What about advances in crop protection?
The loss of active substances often seen as vital to crop protection are a constant source of frustration among growers and advisers. Unfortunately, it 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. Potato cyst nematode and free-living nematodes inflict significant production losses, as well as making the growing of potatoes more complicated. 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.
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.
Late blight will continue to be problematic. Constantly evolving strains 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. 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.
Does the potato have an image problem?
Consumers could be better informed about how their food is produced. It is reckoned that in the UK we are five generations removed from the land while in France, it is only three. The consequence of this disconnect is that consumers don’t appreciate what it takes to produce food. This is a challenge facing all sectors of agriculture and horticulture and is one reason why initiatives such as Open Farm Sunday are important to promoting greater engagement with society, but more needs to be done. There is a misguided perception that the potato is ‘fattening’. Busting this myth would help consumers to appreciate the nutritional value of potatoes while supporting consumption of a healthy source of carbohydrate and fibre.
As the bridge between producers and consumers, the grocery retailers play a vital role in promoting understanding, but is it fair to expect them to champion our plight? As an industry we are well represented at many levels but if we are to move to an era of sustainable production, we need retailers and consumers to understand that systems need to change – and by extension the commercial relationship. Delivering this reality will require a clarity of message for which the industry has not always been renowned.
A sign of progress would be a change in retailer attitudes to varieties. For too long we have encouraged a move away from those varieties that are input heavy to those with better resistance to pests and disease, but this message is still not reaching the consumer. Retailers could also do more to develop packaging solutions that protect product shelf-life both in the store and at home. This will reduce wastage and challenge the perception that potatoes are an unhealthy source of nutrients.
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Velum Prime is a nematicide for use in potato and carrot crops. It is a liquid formulation and has no statutory harvest interval.