Wetenschap - 6 oktober 2016

‘There is no need for potatoes to get sick anymore’

tekst:
Albert Sikkema

The potato is an increasingly major food crop around the world. The yield per hectare is increasing and diseases no longer have to pose a threat, said Anton Haverkort in his farewell symposium on 21 September.

Anton Haverkort has been to most of the countries where potatoes are grown. This photo from 2011 was taken in India.

Haverkort was one of the people behind the ten-year Durph project which aims to make potatoes resistant to the fungal disease phytophthora. The research project has already identified several resistance genes from wild potato varieties which can make the common varieties phtophthora-proof. But plant-breeders are not yet embracing the technique this requires – cisgenesis. ‘There is no need for potatoes to get sick anymore’ says Haverkort. ‘It is a choice made by society that resistance has not yet been introduced in practice.’

Weakling

The potato is a weakling, really, but it does have a great future, says ‘potato professor’ Haverkort. He has been to most of the countries where potatoes are grown. So he has watched the rise of the potato to the fourth most important food crop in the world after rice, wheat and maize. Yields have been boosted all around the world in recent decades thanks to a combination of good propagation materials, better varieties, crop protection, fertilization and in some places irrigation, says Haverkort. Farmers in Rwanda, for example, have increased their potato production by ten times in the past 35 years, whereas the population increased by two and a half times. This constitutes an improvement in the country’s food security, he notes.

Yields are expected to rise further in the coming years due to climate change, to which the potato is responding well. ‘Because of the expected increase in CO2 in the air, yields will go up by another 28 percent, our crop models suggest.’ The growing season will become longer in many countries too, because warming will enable farmers to plant earlier and harvest later. The rise in temperatures will cause production to go up by another 15 percent on average, estimates Haverkort.

The potato is a weakling but it has a great future

The potato scores well on nutritional value too: the crop contains far more vitamins and minerals than grains do. This makes it an valuable crop for developing countries. ‘As Potato Ltd Netherlands, we can make the most of these developments by introducing our high quality varieties and technology in countries such as China, India and in east Africa.’

Concerned

Haverkort has been the ambassador and leading expert of this ‘Potato Ltd’. So the whole potato sector was represented at his farewell symposium and drinks party in Wageningen. But Haverkort was also the link between research, practice, policy and industry. He is an open supporter of genetic modification but he also worked with the organic sector. The Durph project exchanged knowledge with the Bio-Impuls project from the ecological sector, for example.

Haverkort is concerned about the future of potato research. ‘The current tendency is for the direction of research to be decided not by bureaucrats but by the business world via the top sectors,’ he stated recently in the sector journal Aardappelwereld. ‘That went fine at first but now the business world has to contribute one quarter of the research funding. A consequence of that is that most of the research is applied. Hardly any fundamental-strategic research takes place anymore. That means potato research at Wageningen Plant Research is drying up. But you need to keep on developing knowledge of the relationship between the potato and the pathogens.’

At his farewell symposium, Mister Potato received the Broekema award, the highest distinction in the Dutch plant breeding world. He is retiring from Wageningen – 8 December will be his last working day – but the world of potato research has not seen the back of him. Haverkort has been appointed for three years as potato professor at Nigde University in Turkey. He also intends to write a Potato Handbook.


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