Investing your potato levy to prevent crop loss

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Leading scientists explain how AHDB funding has progressed pest and disease control strategies for potatoes

Preventing crop loss through crop protection and storage research is fundamental to the work we do at AHDB Potatoes. In fact, we invest £400K a year on crop protection research, forecasting and monitoring of key pests and diseases, including late blight, blackleg, PCN and aphids.

We spoke to leading potato scientists and agronomists to find out how your levy has helped to develop controls strategies for key pests and diseases for potato crops.

Interview with Professor Gerry Saddler (Chief Plant Health Officer for Scotland and Head of SASA), Professor Ian Toth (James Hutton Institute and Director of Scotland’s Plant Health Centre), Dr Larissa Collins (Fera Science Ltd),

Responding to new threats

AHDB Potatoes is funded and structured flexibly to help the industry respond rapidly to any threats from new pests and diseases. We closely monitor regulatory and overseas developments to ensure we are able to connect researchers with the potato industry to respond to critical new issues.

Professor Gerry Saddler, Chief Plant Health Officer for Scotland and Head of SASA, said, “It’s easy to forget now, but AHDB Potatoes funding was instrumental in understanding the emerging problems we faced with Dickeya solani a few years back.

“The collaboration with Scottish Government ensured this pathogen was kept out of Scotland, which ultimately benefitted the whole GB industry and led to the elimination of this threat from our production system.

“I would be concerned should there be a reduced or diluted focus on R&D by AHDB Potatoes in future as this may ultimately damage our industry and make us less resilient to face the constant challenges posed by pests and diseases.”

Late blight

Late blight remains the single most important potato disease, costing the industry an estimated £50m annually in crop protection chemicals in a typical blight pressure season. Supporting the industry to help prevent and control this disease is one of our key priorities at AHDB Potatoes, through our and Fight Against Blight services.

John Sarup, SPUD Agronomy & Consultancy Ltd, said, “The in-season genotyping from Fight Against Blight allows me to make well-informed decisions regarding what actives to use and when. This is particularly important for anti-resistance strategies due to the ever-changing blight population and the non-renewal of active ingredients.”

Meg Edmonds, Eurofins Agroscience Services, added, “When we’re establishing new platform trial sites for late blight around the UK, the information from AHDB research projects, such as varietal susceptibility to the disease, plays a big role in our discussions.

“The Hutton Criteria, developed by AHDB funding at James Hutton Institute, ensures we can replicate the conditions most favourable to the disease, by managing the irrigation programmes to complement the weather conditions.

“Colleagues across all our platform sites also subscribe to the Blightwatch service. We use this early on to ensure we are able to plan our plant protection applications proactively.”

Battling blackleg

Blackleg is one of the most damaging bacterial plant diseases in the UK, responsible for annual losses of £50m for the potato industry. We are supporting and funding multiple projects researching this disease, with the most recent three-year project launching in summer 2020.

Gerry comments: “Blackleg has for many years been the single biggest cause of downgradings and rejections from the Scottish seed potato classification scheme. The funding for applied research provided by AHDB Potatoes has been, and continues to be, instrumental in deepening our understanding and leading to improved management practices for this damaging disease.

“AHDB Potatoes has been innovative in how levy-payers’ money has funded research, frequently entering into co-funding initiatives with the Scottish Government to boost its reach for the benefit of the industry as a whole.”

Professor Ian Toth, James Hutton Institute, adds: “I have worked on blackleg disease of potato for over 30 years and in that time much of my research has come from AHDB, often in combination with Scottish Government.

“Over this time, I have worked closely with industry to ensure that the research I do is relevant to them and that they get regular updates on progress. AHDB has always made it clear that their research budget is focused on making a difference to the industry and, thanks to them, that is what we have tried to do.”

Chief Plant Health Officer. for Scotland and Head of SASA.

Aphids and viruses

One of the major threats to the health of seed potato crops is the transmission of viruses by aphids. The main virus species in GB potato crops is currently Potato Virus Y (PVY). We have various tools and resources to help you monitor and manage aphids, from testing to monitoring and forecasting.

Dr Larissa Collins, Fera Science Ltd, states, “AHDB has funded aphid monitoring in seed potatoes since 2004. This work has developed over time and we are now delivering for levy payers up-to-date estimates of virus pressure across the major seed-potato-growing areas of GB.

“This is a tool which agronomists and growers use as part of their decision-making process to protect their crops from virus transmission. We now work with agronomists and growers to run 100 aphid monitoring traps across the major seed-potato-growing areas of GB. We provide same-day results by email, daily SMS and email alerts and weekly reports, as well as maps showing virus pressures and a summary report at the end of each season.

a woman smiling for the camera

“This monitoring and information provision has been supported by AHDB-funded research on the transmission of viruses to seed potato crops by aphids. In the course of delivering project R428, we assessed a number of aphid vectors and potential vectors of both PVY and PVA. The outcomes were used to amend the vector efficiencies used in the aphid monitoring scheme to ensure that the information being generated is up to date and relevant to current UK PVY and PVA virus strains and aphid species and clones.

“AHDB also funded an investigation into the effects of reducing the number of traps in the network to ensure that the network is run and funded in the most efficient way possible, while still producing relevant information across the seed-potato-growing areas,” added Larissa.

Nematicide stewardship

Potato cyst nematode is the most important potato pest in the UK and has the potential to cause substantial yield losses. Nematode control is integral to the production of high-quality, nutritious root crops and granular nematicides are a vital tool in an integrated strategy to control this pest. Stewardship is vital to the long-term sustainability of nematicide use.

Mark Britton, Syngenta UK, said: “The value of support and independent guidance of AHDB for industry stewardship programmes cannot be underestimated for potato growers and agronomists.

“The Nematicide Stewardship Programme (NSP), fully supported by the experience and industry perspective of AHDB, has been highly effective in setting standards and providing training for growers and operators. It has ensured greater protection for the environment, while assuring growers get the best possible results and returns from every nematicide application.” 

Insecticide resistance

Sustainable integrated pest management (IPM) strategies are at the core of all of our crop protection research. As access to plant protection products dwindles due to regulatory changes, an important element of our work is to ensure we have long-term access to existing products. Monitoring for insecticide resistance and providing advice to growers to prevent resistance build-up is a critical component of our research.

Professor Linda Field, Rothamsted Research, comments: “AHDB support has ensured that there is independent data on the insecticide resistance status of key pests. This means growers and farmers have timely advice as to which treatments will work and, importantly for resistance management, which will not.”