The future of the potato is at stake: seed instead of a seed potato

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Something truly big is at stake: the future of the potato. It’s one of the most important foods there is. Germans eat around 60 kilograms of them a year – and the Latvians even twice that. Yet potatoes are very difficult to breed on account of their genetic makeup. To change that, KWS has joined forces with the U.S. company Simplot, which is likewise family-run and is one of the world’s leading processors of agricultural products.

Together they have founded the new company Aarvedo. Each of the two partners has a 50 percent stake in this joint venture, with KWS and Simplot taking completely new approaches in breeding, multiplying and cultivating potatoes. The new company is headquartered at the old location of KWS Potato at Nagele in the Netherlands, not far from Lake Ijssel by the North Sea coast. Breeders and researchers at Aarvedo are working to speed up the time to market for new potato varieties with improved properties.

A look at the genome

The experts are tackling one challenge in particular. It currently takes up to 20 years to breed a new variety. That’s a very long time, even for plant breeders. A look at the potato’s genome illustrates why that process is so long and arduous.

Today’s commercial potato varieties are tetraploid, a technical term used in biology to indicate that they have four sets of chromosomes (by comparison: Humans have just two sets). In a potato, each gene – and so each property – is therefore present in four different forms. That has far-reaching consequences.

If tetraploid plants are crossed, the result is progeny with a very large genetic diversity. The progeny of plants that contain only two copies of each gene (which breeders call diploid) have far lower diversity. The potato’s large genetic diversity means that it takes longer to filter out the desired properties in the breeding process.

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“We want to become faster”

“We want to become faster,” says Paul van den Wijngaard, the joint venture’s Dutch manager. That’s easier said than done: Achieving that goal will take far longer. The plan, says van den Wijngaard, is to reduce the potato’s genetic complexity “to an acceptable extent for breeding.” That’s accomplished by cutting the number of chromosomes from four to two. In biological terms, that is no problem and the plants continue to grow very well.

  • Growing new potato varieties is a long way. We're going with completely new ideas.

    Susanne Holzapfel, KWS
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Once the initial conditions have been created, new varieties can be bred better, i.e. faster. van den Wijngaard and his team can then influence the desired traits in a more pinpointed manner and far more quickly. They include traits such as resistance to various pathogens. A high yield is important for many farmers. Some consumers want a particular taste. To make particularly long French fries, manufacturers naturally require especially long potatoes. And asparagus fans often love new potatoes that, although they are smaller, can be put fresh on the table in May. Shape, starch content and storability are further properties that breeders want to modify.

This also shows why Simplot and KWS are a good fit. Their joint venture Aarvedo unites KWS’ experience and know-how in hybrid plant breeding with the expertise that Simplot, the largest family-run agribusiness in the U.S., boasts in the potato market.

The next step

But that’s not all. Such optimized (diploid) varieties could then be used in a next step as parent lines for producing hybrid potato seed. “That would be an innovation that could radically change farming,” says van den Wijngaard.

  • Potato seed instead of seed potatoes has the potential to change agriculture.

    Menno Douwers, KWS
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The clonal method of multiplication has been used for potatoes up to now. That means that farmers retain part of their potato harvest; put the potatoes in dark, cool storage; check them throughout the winter; treat them to protect against pests; load the tubers back on the trailer in the spring; drive out to the field again and plant the seed potatoes. One thing is clear: The transport and storage logistics all that involves is cost- and energy-intensive. The objective of KWS and Simplot is to simplify that laborious, time-consuming process and make it cost-effective and more ecologically sustainable.

Seed instead of a seed potato

van den Wijngaard is convinced that potato seed – at least as the starting material for developing new varieties – could become the industry standard thanks to its many advantages in terms of transportation and handling. “The hybrid potato definitely has what it takes to become a game changer.”

Seed instead of a seed potato: Such a transformation would reduce the logistics problem. Truckloads of potatoes – 2.5 tons of seed potatoes are needed per hectare – would be replaced by just a cardboard box full of seed weighing less than 100 grams. It would also increase quality and predictability in the field.

The small seed obtained from highly optimized parent lines would also embody everything that makes the partnership between Simplot and KWS so strong: a leading position in hybrid breeding and detailed knowledge of what farmers, food producers and consumers demand from potatoes.

Greater precision in breeding

In practice this means: Faster breeding progress enables farmers to obtain optimized varieties that deliver the best-possible yield and are protected by resistance to pathogens. That would reduce the use of chemical pesticides. In turn, food producers and consumers benefit because their requirements – such as taste, texture and processing attributes of the potatoes – will be fulfilled more precisely in the future thanks to the enhanced breeding possibilities.

But admittedly, there’s a long way to go before we achieve the potato of the future. All the same, “The intensive research we’ve been conducting on the hybrid potato since 2011 is already well advanced. We can develop new varieties as of now,” says van den Wijngaard. Challenges on the path to the future include producing genetically uniform and high-performance parent lines for hybrid breeding. “Our first product probably won’t be ready for the market until about 2025.”

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