Walter De Jong, Associate Professor at Cornell University’s School of Integrative Plant Sciences, Plant Breeding and Genetics Section, has been researching potatoes at Cornell for more than 15 years. Potatoes have been bred at Cornell for at least 50 years, De Jong says, and 70% of the university’s breeding efforts are focused on developing new chip varieties, while 30% is dedicated to various fresh market classes.
The program primarily breeds varieties suitable for the Northeast, or within a 500-mile radius of the breeding facility in Ithaca, NY.
Breeding efforts differ for fresh and processed markets. For the fresh market, areas of interest include developing varieties that look attractive, taste good, and yield well enough that growers will want to grow them, according to De Jong.
“For chipping varieties, we’re trying to develop round, white varieties that have relatively high starch content that don’t accumulate much sugar during cold storage,” he says.
Pathogen Resistance Push
Cornell’s breeding program has been incorporating pathogen resistance into as many varieties as it can, and one of the more recent areas of focus has been breeding resistance to Potato Virus Y (PVY), De Jong says.
“We want to incorporate PVY into as many potatoes as we can for both chipping and fresh markets,” De Jong says. “There are new strains of PVY that can cause tuber necrosis. Reducing yield is one thing, but making tubers unmarketable is another. There are several resistance genes that have been brought in from wild, cultivated species from South America that other breeders are trying to incorporate.”
Another major area of concern is breeding resistance for a new race of golden nematode, Ro2, which has been found in Long Island and upstate New York.
The original race of golden nema-tode, Ro1, is a quarantined pest in New York, and nearly every variety that Cornell has produced within the last 30 years has incorporated resistance to the pest, De Jong explains. However, the new race, Ro2, has not responded to conventional resistance, so researchers at Cornell have been striving to incorporate resistance to the new race since 2000.
Consumer Friendly Traits
Perhaps even more important than disease resistance, De Jong says, is the research being done to improve the outward appearance of potato varieties.
“For fresh market, there is much more emphasis on how smooth the skin is. In some ways, that seems appalling, but the reality is most people buy with their eyes, so the varieties have to look good,” he says.
“While we’re doing that, we’re trying to pack a bunch of other stuff in there — disease resistance, high yields, good storability, and good eating quality. But we’re really trying to push external appearance.”
As far as what varieties he’s working with, De Jong says the primary focus is on round, white skin/white flesh varieties because of their popularity with the American consumer. However, a wide range of traits is being explored.
“We also try to develop red skin/white flesh potatoes, yellow-fleshed potatoes, potatoes that are completely purple throughout, completely red throughout, potatoes that have unusual shapes or color patterns, or where some of the skin is one color and other parts are (another),” he says.
Strengths Of Chipping Varieties
As mentioned, with chipping varieties, the primary focus is developing ones that don’t accumulate sugar in the cold weather and can be stored for a longer period than previously possible, De Jong says.
With harvest starting in mid-August, De Jong says the goal is to have varieties that can still be made into chips by May or June of the following year.
Two varieties Cornell released about five years ago that have shown promise in this category are ‘Lamoka’ and ‘Waneta.’
“They both have outstanding chip color when fried out of the cold, which is a trait that’s important in the industry,” De Jong says.
Thoughts On A GMO Potato
Following the mention of the ‘Innate’ potato variety from Simplot, which had been genetically engineered to avoid bruising, De Jong says that despite the many ways in which it could potentially facilitate the breeding process, he doesn’t see it as a possibility at Cornell.
“You can improve potatoes much more quickly, and much more precisely by engineering them with biotechnological techniques than you can by making a cross,” he explains.
“The beauty of genetic engineering, is A: It’s really easy to do, and B: You don’t have to reshuffle everything. You can say ‘I like this potato, it’s great for everything except trait ‘X,’ I’ll just engineer it!’”
Ultimately, De Jong says the regulatory costs associated with getting a GMO potato approved from USDA would far exceed the benefits considering the lack of current consumer acceptance.
“There’s a moat that we can’t cross,” he explains. “It hasn’t been accepted yet, and if there’s limited resources, then why go there?”