Is the hybrid potato the new weapon in the fight for greater food security? The hybrid version of this popular crop could make a huge difference, especially in the agricultural regions of Africa. But it could also play a major role in the transition to sustainable agriculture in the West. On Friday 2 June, a book entitled ‘Impact of hybrid potato: the future of hybrid potato from a systems perspective’ was presented during a mini-symposium in Wageningen. Several speakers highlighted the social significance of the hybrid potato.
The book is the final result of a NWO-funded research project entitled ‘Responsible Innovation in Dutch Potato Breeding (Potarei)’. The project partners were Wageningen University & Research (WUR), the Rathenau Institute, the University of Groningen and Solynta. In the book, published by Wageningen Academic Publishers and KIT Royal Tropical Institute, the researchers write about the technical innovations behind the hybrid potato and how small farmers can be provided access to suitable starting material.
Hybrid breeding and botanical seed
Hybrid breeding will allow potato varieties with new characteristics to be grown, such as varieties that are resistant to certain diseases, and so reduce the need for pesticides. Using hybrid seed as a starting material for potato cultivation will make breeding such varieties much quicker and more efficient.
Hybrid seed will offer many other advantages. For example, hybrid varieties can be propagated using botanical seed instead of seed potatoes, making the logistics of cultivation much simpler. In addition, hybrid potato seed can be produced in a single season instead of taking five to eight seasons. Only 25 grams of seed is required for one hectare of potatoes (as opposed to 2000 kilos of seed potatoes), and the hybrid seed does not carry diseases and can be stored for a long period.
“Hybrid potatoes could revolutionise the potato sector, particularly in low and middle-income countries,” says Paul Struik, project leader of Potarei and WUR professor of crop physiology. “The hybrid potato will have the most impact on yields in remote and inaccessible agricultural regionals. With hybrid potatoes, we expect to be able to respond much faster to farmers’ needs, such as resistance to the dreaded potato disease Phytophthora. But we will also be able to develop hybrid varieties that are more resistant to climate change.”
There is great potential for all the world’s potato-producing regions. However, the first results are expected in Africa, because hybrid seed offers the most added value for small farmers with limited resources. It will also be much easier to distribute botanical seed to small farmers in comparison with seed potatoes. But, as resistances are quickly and reliably introduced into new cultivars, hybrid potatoes will also help to reduce the use of chemical protection agents in the West.
Revolution in the potato sector
The book reveals that, with faster breeding and propagation systems, it will be possible to produce clean seed and respond to climate change and the rapidly changing demands of markets and society.
“However, to make this revolution possible, the potato production system for both seeds and seed potatoes will have to be radically changed,” remarks Pim Lindhout, former director of R&D at Solynta and co-editor of the book. “Such a transition is not easy to make, neither here in Europe by our high-tech farmers, nor by low-tech small farmers in Africa. It will be a major challenge to reach the millions of potato farmers in Africa and it will require intensive cooperation between the industry, governments and NGOs .”
“The hybrid potato could be the catalyst of an unprecedented improvement in potato productivity in Africa,” continues Peter Gildemacher, potato expert at KIT Royal Tropical Institute and also co-editor of the book. “Combined with effective agricultural extension, it could help reduce the yield gap between Africa and the rest of the world, double the income of potato farmers, and reduce the price of potatoes for consumers. This technology offers a radically different way of providing good starting material to small potato farmers in Africa, which has been the biggest constraint to potato farming on that continent for decades.”
Pim Lindhout and Peter Gildemacher are both founders of the Sepia Foundation, which is dedicated to making the hybrid potato accessible to farmers, starting with East Africa. The aim is to improve food security by promoting the sustainable cultivation of hybrid potatoes. Sepia focusses on working with local stakeholders to demonstrate the added value of hybrid potatoes and teaching farmers how to grow these crops.