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New traits for better varieties

Potatoes In Canada Special Issue: Potato breeding research improves industry competitiveness.

November 15, 2007  By Donna Fleury

22aResearchers at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Potato Research
Centre in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and the Lethbridge Research Station help
the Canadian potato industry stay competitive through new and improved introductions.
"The priority of the national potato breeding efforts is on conventional
hybridization procedures to bring mainstream varieties to market," explains
Dr. Richard Tarn, study leader for potato breeding and genetic enhancement at
the AAFC Potato Research Centre in Fredericton.

The potato breeding efforts can be divided into the three main industry areas:
the French fry sector, the chip market and the fresh table market. Each area
has specific traits, quality and other factors that are important in the development
of new varieties. Many of the pest and disease research priorities are the same
across all industry areas. Potato breeders have the task of offering varieties
to industry that have the potential to produce a good quality crop within Canada's
short growing season.

"With the French fry market, our research is addressing the problems with
the current major varieties, including Russet Burbank, Shepody and increasingly
Ranger Russet," says Tarn. "Since our growing season is shorter than
the major production areas in the US, we have a specific Canadian requirement
to develop varieties better adapted to our short season, and to the different
production areas and weather types during the growing season." Other important
attributes include high crop yields, good-sized blocky oblong potatoes for French
fries and uniformity of type and size. The key is to find varieties that offer
efficient recovery of good grade products on the processing line.


"One of the challenges facing potato breeders, not just in Canada but
everywhere else, is to develop a variety that has better quality, grade and
storability than the standard Russet Burbank," says Tarn. "These new
varieties also have to be acceptable to processors and their major clients,
such as McDonald's and others." Another research priority is to try and
improve traits for storage, both for colour and to keep potatoes free of defects.
"Although a variety like Russet Burbank is good, we hope to develop improved
varieties through our potato breeding programs."

As part of the breeding program at both Fredericton and Lethbridge, researchers
are working with colleagues in other areas such as pathology and entomology.
"Improved resistance to diseases, such as late blight, is very important.
Another major objective is to address early dying, caused in part by verticillium
wilt and other factors. We're also looking at common scab resistance, virus
Y and the mosaic virus complex. There is a considerable effort focussed on researching
the resistance to the Colorado potato beetle. All of these efforts require us
to bring many traits together for the best French fry varieties we can release."

There are also several issues being addressed for the chip sector. "Many
of our present chip varieties require re-conditioning or warmer storage to provide
acceptable chip colour," explains Tarn. "There is a genetic base for
the ability for potatoes to produce light coloured chips directly out of storage
at seven degrees C. We're working hard at both centres to try and get those
genes into the background of well adapted chip selections."

Other attributes that are important are yield, uniformity of tuber type and
size. Storability is highly important to the chip industry. "We need to
be able to extend the storage season in Canada with good quality chip potatoes
to reduce the need to import a new crop from the southern US late in our storage
season," says Tarn.

The fresh market is still an important proportion of the total Canadian potato
industry, making up about 30 percent of all potato consumption. "As potato
breeders, we see this market as having the potential to become more exciting
and innovative, with the introduction of varieties with a wider range of flesh
colours, textures and down the road, flavors," says Tarn. "We see
this as providing an opportunity to develop some very exciting and strong niche
markets with specialty potatoes."

One of the other opportunities for the fresh market is enhanced nutritional
quality. "Some potatoes are high in antioxidants. We have one very specific
stream of material we're working with in Fredericton that has red or purple
pigmented flesh and high antioxidants," explains Tarn. "We've also
been receiving good response from areas such as chip processing, where some
of the colour patterns can make very attractive chips."

Tarn notes that the potato breeders are finding it increasingly important to
recognize how the supply chain works. In many cases, it is the end user who
is looking for a specific variety, particularly in the French fry and chip sectors.
"It is our task to provide the varieties that are required at that point."
In the fresh market sector there is more flexibility. Some of the larger packers
may be in a position to be an agent for a variety and move it in the market.
"Most of the growers in today's market place do not have the ability to
do that on their own."

There is also a successful example of a retailer taking on commercialization
for a specific variety. "In the Maritime region, Co-op Atlantic holds the
commercial license for the Rochdale Gold variety and are able to position or
brand that as their own," says Tarn. "They contract growers to grow
this variety exclusively for them to meet a consumer demand."

There are currently two release procedures for new potato varieties. The Lethbridge
program works directly with the Western Potato Consortium, a group including
growers, processors and major packers. "Selections from the Lethbridge
Potato Program are offered for release to that group for commercialization each
winter," says Tarn. "Our program in Fredericton offers new releases
to the industry every February. All of the selections for release are identified
by January and information is posted on the centre's web site."

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