Tuesday, September 11, 2012

In praise of the potato

Image: Courtesy of the Southern Star. Details below.
I was delighted to take a trip to Liss Ard Estate, just outside Skibbereen, West Cork, yesterday to speak about the potato plant at a seminar organised by A Taste of West Cork Food Festival.

The panel of speakers for the event included Regina Sexton of UCC, Madeline McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds and Éanna ní Lamhna, author and RTE radio contributor.

Éanna opened the evening with an informative and exciting summary of the history of the potato and its arrival in Ireland. This was followed by Regina Sexton's presentation on the potato as a food item amongst both the rich and poor in Ireland.

Madeline McKeever spoke of her experience as an organic grower based in West Cork and about the interesting work done by the Sarvari Research Trust to breed blight-resistant potato varieties.

My own talk centered on the historic and present-day impact of late blight on the potato crop and the recent advances in the science of the potato.

I pointed out that an “arms race” now exists between the late blight-causing pathogen Phytophthora infestans and those who would seek to control it. The pathogen’s genome, its genetic blueprint, was sequenced in 2011 and this shows us that it is an incredibly flexible and rapidly-adapting organism. As we develop new fungicides or resistant potato varieties to control late blight, it is just a matter of time before Phytophthora infestans evolves to overcome these barriers.

We have a number of options for the future including the development on new, blight-resistant potato varieties. These varieties can be developed via conventional breeding methods: for example, Teagasc developed the highly successful Rooster variety via its breeding programme and that potato now accounts for about 50% of all potatoes grown in Ireland. Unfortunately it’s not fully resistant to late blight.

Resistant varieties do exist and they are often employed in an organic setting: sarpo mira, blue Danube, etc. However, consumers are reluctant to change from the traditional varieties.

As expected the issue of the recent planting of GM blight-resistant potato plants in Ireland was raised by a number of audience members. I expressed my view that a small-scale, well-designed, open and honest experiment such as this, conducted by a well-respected public body such as Teagasc is to be welcomed.

Opponents of GM often call for more information and more testing to be done on GM plants. This is exactly what the Teagasc experiment is designed to give us.

We must use all the tools at our disposal: organic, conventional and GM to control late blight and protect the potato, a plant which has huge social, historical and economic importance for this country.

The event concluded with a sampling of some delicious potato-based recipes (the lemon potato cake was particularly to my liking) as well as some gripping drama provided by the Skibbereen Theatre Society. All in all, a wonderful celebration of the potato plant.

A Taste of West Cork Food Festival continues this week. More details of other events.

Image: Speakers and organisers of the "Humble Spud" event at Liss Ard. Image courtesy of the Southern Star. Seated (l-r) Madeline McKeever, Regina Sexton, Éanna ní Lamhna, Eoin Lettice. Standing (l-r) Michael Hurley (Chair) and Kay Quinn (Organising Committee) 

Read the Irish Examiner's coverage of the event here.


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