Emerging potato varieties aim to put more pop into potato market

Federal government overhauling national potato research program to make it more responsive to industry

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The latest potato varieties being evaluated for the Ontario market were on display at the University of Guelph’s Elora Research Station in late August for interested growers and industry representatives.

The majority were from the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada potato breeding program in Fredericton, which annually provides cultivars with potential for Ontario’s climate and growing conditions to the University of Guelph for testing.

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“We are one of the sites for the national program,” said University of Guelph technician Vanessa Currie. “We have all kinds of markets that are interesting, including chipping, fry, fresh and specialty.”

Why it matters: Potato consumption took a hit when the Atkins Diet became popular, and the industry needs new products to regain space on consumer plates.

Of particular interest, for example, is a very early chipping potato ideally suited for extreme southwestern Ontario. Currently being tested in the Leamington area, it is planted in March and ready for harvest about 90 days later. This would give potato chip processors local supply earlier in the season instead of buying from the U.S.

Vanessa Currie introduced the varieties on display at a recent field day.
photo: Lilian Schaer

“On the chip side, early is good. We usually end up buying from the U.S., about $6 million currently, so we want to keep that here,” said Al Sullivan, who is now retired as a professor from the Department of Plant Agriculture. “We tried to grow it here in Elora, but couldn’t plant early enough.”

Early maturing is also desirable for fries, along with consistency, good colour after frying and long tubers, Sullivan said. Fresh market potatoes in particular need to have good taste, flavour and texture to make the grade.

Fresh market potatoes with coloured skin and/or flesh are in particular demand. The colour comes from anthocyanins or antioxidants that have human health benefits and the darker the colouring, the higher the antioxidant values, Sullivan said.

And all cultivars under consideration, regardless of application, must perform from a yield perspective and be disease resistant. It takes about 15 years from start to finish to bring a new variety to market.

Long, thin tubers are ideal for french fries.
photo: Lilian Schaer

Ontario currently ranks sixth among Canadian provinces in potato production, producing approximately 313,000 tonnes of potatoes on 34,000 acres in 2018, according to OMAFRA statistics.

The national horticulture research cluster supported by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada provides funding for new variety development, as do potato growers and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).

The cluster work is focused on four main areas: identifying and evaluating new processing potato varieties with good storability to help the processing industry stretch a crop from one season to the next; fresh potato varieties with coloured skin and flesh, early maturity and specialty market potential; early maturing varieties for the processing industry; and evaluating for scab tolerance.

“We are very lucky and grateful to receive support from the cluster,” said Currie. “We want to make sure we can supply the industry with a good supply of high quality potato varieties.”

National research overhaul underway

Guelph is one of 10 Canadian trial locations for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s potato breeding program, which has released more than 130 new varieties in the past 90 years.

Growers get a look at new potato varieties in development.
photo: Lilian Schaer

Feedback in recent years suggesting the program was no longer working for growers prompted first a comprehensive review and then an overhaul that is now being rolled out.

“We went through piece by piece, why and how and what we collect, and looked at why we are collecting something if the industry isn’t using it?” said Virginia Dickison, biologist with the plant breeding program and AAFC industry liaison.

Changes include:

  • Making the breeding program more reflective of the industry;
  • What used to be a one-year trial focused mostly on the fresh market is now a two-tier system that contains about 70 per cent processing and 30 per cent fresh market varieties;
  • The most promising varieties will undergo two years of trials in the field to help researchers better zero in on those with the most potential;
  • Genomics screening is now being used to help speed up the selection process, a database to track breeding work has been set up, and staff now use tablets to manage and input information right from the field.
  • The Accelerated Release Program, under which exclusive rights to new varieties – about 15 per year – went to the highest bidder. Consultations around how to get new varieties to industry are now underway to find a new route to commercialization.

“We want to standardize evaluation and reporting and we’re looking to input from industry on this. For example, we want to make sure everyone uses the same scab ratings and that we’re speaking the same language as industry,” Dickison said.

“One of the big things we heard is that we weren’t visible, so we’re focusing on variety field days at every trial site to get feedback,” she added. “We are listening and we want our program to work, so as much feedback as we can get, the better.”

David De Koeyer has been named as AAFC’s new potato breeder and his predecessor, Benoit Bizimungu, now heads up the Canadian Potato Gene Resources collection, which includes domestic, international, wild and heritage potato varieties suited to the Canadian climate.

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