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Monday, April 21, 10:14 a.m.
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UMaine potato study looks to end plight against blight

Potato breeding developments being researched by graduate students in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences look to save the future of Maine’s iconic crop.

Graduate student Kristen Michelle Brown is working with two potato varieties from the University of Maine breeding program that will hopefully one day hold a late blight-resistant gene. This could help potato farmers save money, as late blight is a potato disease that spoils the crop.

“Late blight is a big problem in Aroostook County because the climate is so fantastic,” Brown said. “The only way you can treat it is by pouring fungicides onto your plants.

“There are genes in a number of potato varieties which are late blight-resistant genes. The idea is that if you can get those genes into your potato varieties then you don’t have to use as much fungicide,” Brown said.

Brown’s research is a reproduction of a 1977 experiment by researcher William Fry, who sought to develop a way to reduce the amount of fungicide used on potatoes. The fungicide used in the experiment and by potato farmers in northern climates today works to combat late blight pressure in potatoes.

“What [Fry] found was that when these potatoes have resistance genes, they don’t need as much fungicide,” Brown said.

Brown’s research is partially funded by the Maine Potato Board. She presented this information to the 28th annual Maine Potato Conference earlier this year. She thinks of her role as providing more information to farmers, with the farmers making the final decision.

“When people are looking for potatoes, it has to meet market specs. It’s not uncommon for a [potato] variety to take 15 to 20 years before a breeding program produces a variety that’s commercially available. That’s a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of space. You have to plant for many years,” Brown said.

“Potatoes are very sensitive to the environment: Their size is largely based on weather. What we may see are varieties that are better suited for New York may be better suited for southern Maine,” Brown said.

Brown opined that New England states, including Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, are going to benefit from warmer temperatures.

“In terms of the growing season, plants love carbon dioxide,” Brown said. “It will really be interesting to see what happens in the next 15 to 20 years in terms of climate.”

According to Brown, the research potatoes are not genetically modified; they are created in a traditional breeding process. The breeding program at UMaine doesn’t have the resources for genetic modification. The processes involved in traditional breeding resemble characteristics of genetic modification, according to Brown. Brown believes the world can benefit from responsible genetic modification in food, especially with global climate change in the forecast.

“When you’re talking about breeding a plant or crop that takes 15 to 20 years to get a [commercial] variety, you’re breeding for what you’re facing today,” Brown said.“It’s not necessarily what you’ll be facing in 20 years.

“There’s a lot that genetic modification can do to help us for what’s coming,” Brown said. “I’m for responsible genetic modification. It’s difficult for me to say genetic modification is bad when you’ve got climate change coming in one direction. You’ve got the pressures of trying to feed people, and this is a living for a lot of people. I’m not saying go ahead and modify everything; I’m just saying there’s a lot to balance. If you’re facing something as catastrophic as global climate change, I think that genetic modification is a tool that can be really useful.”

According to Brown, potatoes are a staple crop for much of the world. The impact of using less fungicide may help much of the world

“I’ve read articles where if you can get late blight-resistant potatoes to farmers in some countries in Africa. That’s the difference between a subsistence living and a real living. If they can’t afford all of the chemicals or can’t afford the education to teach them how to apply them properly, you get them these varieties, and they can grow enough to feed their family. I don’t see how that’s a bad thing,” Brown said. “If we can get that to them faster, I think that’s the humane thing to do.”