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Features Agronomy Plant Breeding
What is the hallmark of good breeding?


November 30, 1999
By Rosalie I. Tennison

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Potatoes are a complicated crop and breeding new varieties is equally complex. Very few varieties have stood the test of time as consumer taste changes, disease pressure evolves, and breeders are challenged to meet the needs of growers and the markets they serve.

Traditionally, in Canada, public breeding programs served the growers, but as large processors began demanding certain qualities in the potatoes for their products, breeding also became the domain of private concerns. Large private breeding companies, mostly located in Europe, breed for all levels of the market from table stock to processing, but there is also a “cottage” style breeding system that sees individuals breed varieties that are licensed to the larger companies. Canadian grower organizations include promising varieties from the European-based seed companies in trials to check their adaptability for Canadian growing conditions. But, also included in these trials are the varieties developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), the only remaining public breeder in the country as most universities have scaled back or shifted their focus away from potato research. So, where does this leave growers and what is the state of potato breeding in Canada?

According to Dr. Michele Konschuh, a potato research scientist with Alberta Agriculture, and Rural Development (AARD) in Brooks, changes were made to the public breeding system recently without much consultation with industry. “We tried to keep a breeder in Western Canada, but a different decision was made,” she explains. As a result, AAFC has only one potato breeder, Dr. Benoit Bizimungo, and he is now based in Eastern Canada.

Then, the Accelerated Release Program that had been introduced in Eastern Canada was expanded to Western Canada to allow access to promising seedlings. Konschuh says, in the end, the cost of evaluating promising varieties has been downloaded to industry. She says the program does work for larger companies, but smaller companies cannot afford the cost of developing and marketing the variety.

But, at AAFC in Lethbridge, Dr. Jeff Stewart, the science director for the Lethbridge Research Centre and the person who oversees germplasm enhancement for AAFC at the national level, says the public potato breeding program is alive and well, just reorganized. He also says the Accelerated Release Program has helped stakeholders gain access to promising seedlings sooner than would have been possible under the former system. “Consolidation was necessary in various regions of Canada and it made sense to have a potato breeder at the Potato Research Centre in Fredericton,” Stewart explains. “Fredericton is our centre of excellence for potato research and there is a critical mass of expertise working on potato-related questions there. Bizimungo came from Western Canada and moved to Eastern Canada, so he has a national outlook.”

Stewart adds that AAFC maintains potato research plots in seven provinces where potatoes are grown, so there is attention to what is needed in each growing area.

The focus of the public and private breeding programs may be slightly different even though both are trying to develop germplasm with good traits that growers can produce successfully. Processing companies tend to focus on breeding varieties that will work for the products they produce, whereas public breeders may be focusing on traits that will work for all types of potatoes. As Stewart says: “We tend to breed for the ‘public good,’ such as lowering the glycemic index.”

In the private breeding category, there are also individuals who breed potatoes. Although individual breeders are common in Europe, Canada can only claim about three, who essentially are trying to develop varieties “for the love of it.”

“Breeding is a lot of work and costs money,” admits John Konst, a potato breeder and seed grower near Outlook, Saskatchewan. “I don’t have access to testing sites or financial support, but I still have to abide by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada rules. Private breeders don’t have free access to parent plants to allow us to breed for disease resistance, for example.”

He says it is difficult for him to maintain his breeding program without some financial support, so his seed farm supports his breeding efforts, but he has to keep the two separated physically to ensure the purity of his seed.

No guarantees
Another private breeder is Dr. Robert Coffin, recently retired from Cavendish Farms on Prince Edward Island, and his experience as a breeder confirms that it is a costly business. “You work for years without any guarantees of success,” he says, “so you must always maintain your enthusiasm.”

If a private, individual breeder is able to develop a variety with scab resistance, for example, that variety may never get to growers’ fields because the cost of registration and variety protection may be more than a single breeder can afford, he explains. “The weak link in the system is that a variety with a lot of potential may never get its chance in the marketplace because it costs so much to get it there,” Dr. Coffin continues. He says the European model has private breeders who pair up with large companies, which gives them access to facilities and financing to increase seed and develop their successes.

One of the concerns about the Accelerated Release Program is that not all promising seedlings get picked up by companies for further evaluation. Konschuh says that breeding is not everything because varieties have to be evaluated for adaptability. “Selection is maybe more important than breeding,” she says. “We have some fabulous breeding programs, but it is the development of the varieties that is lacking.”

“Growers don’t always get access to all the potential varieties,” adds Konst. “I don’t think the current system benefits growers.”

Coffin says his experience with the Accelerated Release Program was not all that successful, as the seedlings he chose to evaluate did not make it past the two-year evaluation period. Problems were identified in the seedlings, such as cracked tubers, extensive sunburn and hollow heart, all of which would lead to extensive dockage to the producer and a corresponding lower pay yield. But, he wonders, were there other potential varieties overlooked that could have been better? He believes there is not enough data provided by AAFC to allow evaluators to make good decisions on the seedlings they want to examine.

Stewart says the varieties developed by AAFC are showcased for growers and industry to give them an idea of what the public breeder is working on. “I’d like to think we have a complete effort in terms of meeting the needs of the industry,” he says. “We do rotational work, broad breeding programs and, if we don’t have what we need, we partner with another organization. You need a good infrastructure to work with potatoes and we have that because we are over 100 years old and have developed a system to work with potatoes in that time.”

Whether public or private, the majority of the needs of growers are being met, for the most part. There may be some glitches in the system in terms of technology transfer, and perhaps even a lack of bodies to do the work, but all the researchers involved in potato breeding programs seem to be working hard to develop the varieties that farmers can grow successfully.

A breeding network that works

To promote the advantages and characteristics of the new tri-state varieties and help ensure the needs of growers are met through breeding program efforts, the Potato Variety Management Institute (PVMI) was formed. PVMI is also responsible for the administration of licenses and royalty collection that returns funds to the research program to ensure its continuation. The tri-states comprise Oregon, Washington and Idaho, whose potato research teams work together to share information and research focus to ensure that what needs to be done leads to the success of the regional breeding program. “PVMI is the brainchild of the tri-state commissions who have supported tri-state breeding programs for more than 26 years now,” explains Jeanne Debons, the organization’s executive director.

Each state has researchers who work together on the 15-plus-year process that it takes to bring a new variety to market. Idaho and Washington have potato breeders working to create successful crosses that meet industry requirements. Idaho is also responsible for selection field trials and agronomic management studies. Oregon manages selection trials and increases seed required in the program. Washington conducts post-harvest research, agronomic management trials and tests for usage. “The tri-state program breeds and evolves varieties for local conditions,” continues Debons. “So, if a variety doesn’t set a reasonably high amount of well-formed, defect-free tubers or doesn’t make it through the conditions of the Pacific Northwest, it isn’t kept in the trials.”

She adds that once the lines are advanced to the tri-state trials, growers are kept informed about each variety at annual meetings and through yearly Yield and Post-harvest Quality Evaluations printed by Washington State University.

PVMI is a non-profit organization that does its best to keep industry, including growers, processors and shippers, informed about its varieties and new releases (two or three each year) through grower meetings, newsletters and the Institute’s website (www.pvmi.org). There is also a liaison between growers and seed producers to ensure there is enough seed supply and to help growers find seed if there is none available in their area. “It would be good if we could work with Canada because some of our varieties probably will perform well in Canada,” Debons says. “Tri-state growers have been encouraging and supportive of PVMI for the extra communications and information about the cultivars and what is happening in research. PVMI is hoping to be the glue that helps to hold the whole system together.”

The PVMI model shows how a non-profit organization can help aid communication and share information through one point, and at the same time, provide a source of funding for the future of the program. In this way, any breakthrough, whether public or private, is shared with the industry. It is a multi-faceted system that is efficient and successful.