Seed industry must play to its strengths
With exports up and reputation never better, the mood was upbeat for more than 170 growers, merchants, seed suppliers, packers and processors who gathered at Potato Council’s Seed Industry Event near Perth on October 30.
Sales of British seed may be buoyed by its strong reputation, but this is no time for growers to rest on their laurels. This word of caution was given by president of the World Potato Congress Allan Parker who delivered the opening paper at Potato Council’s Seed Industry Event.
“Great Britain and in particular Scotland has something special, and in many ways unique, in its high health status for seed potatoes,” Mr Parker pointed out to delegates. “But Prince Edward Island in Canada had a similar status for several decades. It has now lost this status and its markets for seed potatoes, and therein lies the tale.”
Mr Parker, now vice president of Dokagene, one of the largest seed production companies in Russia, worked for 23 years, since 1974, with the seed industry in Prince Edward Island (PEI). At its height, PEI produced 50-60% of Canada’s seed potatoes and exported them all over the world.
The potato area extended to around 18,000ha (46,000 acres), with much of this inspected as seed potatoes and certified. Seed inspection, based largely on a similar model to the English and Scottish systems was run by the government and paid for by taxpayers. Seed health was unsurpassed, noted Mr Parker: “Practically a whole generation of seed potato growers lost the ability to rogue potatoes as the seed fields were so clean there was little need to remove infected plants.”
But the industry lost its focus after a cash-strapped government forced farmers to pay for certification. The area of ware potatoes ballooned, with a large increase of virus-intolerant varieties and many seed potato growers were forced into bankruptcy. “PEI now found itself importing Shepody seed potatoes from other Canadian provinces because the largest processing company could not access clean seed potatoes in PEI.”
The British seed industry should learn from this cautionary tale, warned Mr Parker, and fight above all to maintain its valuable high health status. “Resist the siren song calling for dramatically increased production at any cost and respect the carrying capacity of the land and your communities.”
This year Dokagene planted 5,000 acres of potatoes in the Moscow region of Russia. “We rely heavily on British seed potatoes and varieties which we judge as among the best in the world,” explained Mr Parker.
Download Allan Parker's slides.
A dearth of fresh talent threatens to starve the potato industry of new varieties. Managing director of Mylnefield Research Services Nigel Kerby told delegates that the industry must do more to promote the exciting and progressive world of plant breeding.
“The food industry faces significant challenges in terms of food security, the food versus fuel debate, and managing the threatened withdrawal of key pesticides. Plant breeding is a critical core expertise of any nation that intends to have a vibrant agricultural industry strong enough to take on those challenges. But it is a profession that requires trained and educated plant breeders and the UK simply hasn’t the capacity to train the next generation.”
Breeding is at a critical stage, with exciting new developments in disciplines such as genetics, biometry and molecular biology. But there are no specific degrees to furnish young minds with the knowledge kindled by leading plant breeders, currently in their 50s and 60s, who are looking to hand over the mantle.
The problem will be partly addressed by a new SCRI scholarship for students wanting to enter the profession. But the industry should look wider, make the most of the opportunities to promote itself, and perhaps look at how the food services sector has encouraged new entrants, urged Dr Kerby. “What we need is a Jamie Oliver of the plant-breeding world. We have to make the most of the attributes of the industry across all sectors, and perhaps that’s a job for the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.”
Download Nigel Kerby's slides.
Delegates at the Seed Industry Event were encouraged to grasp the opportunities that lie behind our obsession with carbon footprinting. Bangor University’s Gareth Edwards-Jones delivered an upbeat analysis of climate change and the steps the industry is taking to measure its contribution to greenhouse gases.
“Farmers shouldn’t be afraid of the carbon footprint. A surprising fact about potatoes is that more than 50% of the emissions associated with the crop relates to cooking them in the home.”
And the consumer is driving the agenda, he noted. “It is the chattering middle classes who spur on the non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The media responds to what the NGOs say and that’s what forms opinion and drives government policy.”
There could be significant advantages for the potato industry if all businesses within it were more open about their carbon footprint, pointed out Professor Edwards-Jones. Some large companies have assessed theirs and kept the results quiet, while others, such as Walkers, have used the benefit to their commercial advantage. “It’s not just a PR opportunity – the earlier you measure it and understand what it means, the sooner you can make the most of opportunities such as carbon trading.”
Download Gareth Edwards-Jones' slides.