The North American potato industry is a complex and wonderful entity. Like everything in the world of agriculture, this industry has its ups and downs, but over the years it has managed to be resilient enough to survive the various batterings it has been subjected to.
Lately, there have been several pest-related issues that have gotten a lot of attention. One of these is the industry’s perennial nemesis, potato late blight disease. Another is the threat posed by the array of new, recombinant strains of potato virus Y (PVY), some of which have the capability of inducing tuber necrosis symptoms in susceptible varieties.
Yet another of the latest issues is the heavy scrutiny that the neonicotinoid insecticides are coming under. Are these compounds directly responsible for colony collapse disorder as some are claiming? If they’re not having a direct effect, are they contributing to the problem in other ways? The subject is being hotly debated and carefully researched at the current time. Getting the right answer to this question is of crucial importance.
No one wants any harm to come to our vital honey bee populations, yet the loss of these extremely effective insecticides could pave the way for the comeback of potato leaf roll virus (PLRV). PLRV is another serious disease of potato that can cause severe “net necrosis” symptoms in affected tubers. Because of the unique relationship between PLRV and its green peach aphid vector, a single application of a neonicotinoid insecticide, applied at planting, has proven to be almost 100% effective in controlling this once-dreaded disease of potato.
GMO potato: A possible solution?
Enough with the doom and gloom. Are there solutions anywhere on the horizon to any of these problems?
The answer is a qualified yes. Against this backdrop, we have the siren call of the ever-developing and ever-improving science of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Yes, I know, the U.S. potato industry tried an experiment involving genetically modified potatoes way back in the early ’90s and we all saw how that turned out. So how is another go around with this technology going to turn out any differently than the last one did?
Well, for one thing, we can use that first “experiment” as a template for some things not to do. I am also sensing a genuine effort on the part of those championing the technology this time around to open a dialogue within the industry in an effort to figure out the best way to integrate biotech into the potato system, should we decide to embrace it.
Where we go from here remains an open question. Surely the proponents of any new technology can be guilty of making extravagant promises, but in this case we could be talking about the real deal.
Biotechnology has the potential to solve these aforementioned disease problems, plus a few more, while at the same time improving any number of the physiological shortcomings that potatoes suffer from.
Also, as we know from past experience, as soon as we solve one problem, another comes along to take its place. In some cases these new problems were not even on the radar. Think zebra chip, for example. Could biotech provide a solution to this problem as well?
In any case, all of us in agriculture face a future that will be fraught with challenges both old and new. I certainly don’t see conventional, high-input agriculture going through some kind of dramatic upheaval overnight, but who knows?
Environmental issues, pest pressures, and political maneuvering along with changes in public attitudes can force changes, sometimes fairly rapidly. In my opinion, we need to be ready to make use of every tool at our disposal in our ongoing war against pests. They aren’t going to stand still and neither should we.
Time to start talking.