September 4, 2002

Cornell Sends Super Spud to Russia

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Cornell scientists are sowing the seeds of progress — potato seeds to be precise. A delegation of researchers escorted New York 121, a specially bred variety of disease resistant potato, to Russia last week in an effort to control devastating crop diseases.

Late blight, the disease responsible for devastating potato crops in Ireland in the 1840s, has been running rampant in Russia’s potato farms and depleting a major source of food.

“Potato is the second bread in Russia,” said Prof. K. V. Raman, plant breeding and executive director of the

Cornell Eastern Europe Mexico (CEEM) program. “Making available resistant varieties to late blight can help increase potato yields and improve the sustainability of this important crop,” Raman added.

During the last 15 years, the losses due to late blight in Russia alone have doubled from 2 million tons to 4 million, according to Raman. Russia is the second largest

potato producer in the world, after

China, and carries 7 percent of total potato production. The late blight has caused severe reductions in potato crop yields to small subsistence farmers, making it extremely difficult to afford new seed unaffected by the disease. The problem is self perpetuating and can only be contained if the disease is eliminated at the source.

“The majority of the people in this vast country grow their own [potatoes] using very poor quality seed — generally what they save from the previous crop,” said Prof. Ronnie Coffman, chair of plant breeding and director of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) international programs. “This propagates many viruses and other plant pests and results in poor yields,” she added.

The degenerative conditions in Russia could have major consequences in terms of depleting the global food supply, according to Coffman. New York 121 and similar technologies could potentially eliminate this threat.

The resistant potato has been in development for the last decade. The Cornell potato breeding program begins with anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 seedlings in any given year, from which the scientists select desired characteristics for further evaluation.

“For late blight resistance, that typically kicks in at about 3 years after we’ve made a cross,” said Prof. Walter De Jong, plant breeding. After initial evaluations in the greenhouse, the potential candidates are sent to the field where they are evaluated for several more yields.

New York 121, and other Cornell-bred potatoes like it underwent this extensive evaluation before being given to Dokagene Technologies, the company responsible for dispensing and producing the seeds in Russia. In addition to combating late blight, New York 121 is resistant to golden cyst nematode and potato virus Y, parasites responsible for the devastation of many potato crops globally. New York 121 is fully resistant to late blight potato disease and is in all other aspects, designed to be suitable for baking or boiling, as with any other potato.

“This is a publicly bred variety [of potato] and therefore is not protected and is available in the public domain,” said Raman. “If this variety is successful in Russia, the seed programs involved such as Dokagene will multiply and sell it to growers at the current rate, about 13 cents per kilogram.”

The exportation of seeds to Russia will serve as a further test for the resistant potatoes, which have been known to behave differently in different environments. If all goes as planned, the technology could be used in other countries affected by late blight, such as Mexico.

The ultimate goal of producing pest resistant potatoes is the reduction of the need for pesticides and fungicides which potentially harm the environment and are costly, according to De Jong.

“Plant diseases know no political boundaries, and working together is essential for the control of potato late blight and many other diseases and pests that affect our food crops,” said Coffman.

A group of researchers recently returned from Moscow where they were able to survey many private potato crops affected by late blight and other pests as well as assess the role New York 121 will have there. The researchers met with Dokagene representatives to develop a seed-multiplication plan which will be implemented in the next year.

While the performance of New York 121 in Russia may help to substantially better farmers’ crop quality, Cornell does not stand to gain financially if the research is successful.

“This is a contribution to the public good that will benefit society worldwide,” said Coffman.

Researchers will now monitor the progress of New York 121, evaluating its performance in the environment in terms of yield. If the project is successful, seed will be available to “those who need it most,” according to De Jong.

Archived article by Leonor Guariguata