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A round-up of the EAPR Pathology and Pests Section Meeting, Dundee 7-11 August 2016

29 September 2016

Unless you are involved, few would realise the extent of research on potatoes going on round the world.  But the range and diversity of research is substantial, as you might expect for the fourth most important global crop. The European Association for Potato Research (EAPR) is one of the major bodies that bring researchers together on a regular basis to discuss their findings.  One major gathering of potato pest and disease experts under the EAPR umbrella, organised by Ian Toth and his team at JHI   took place in August in Dundee.  Although organised by a European organisation, the meeting included scientists from all five continents with over 100 attending.

To an outsider, the threats that new pests and diseases pose UK crops can be scary.  Nicola Spence, Defra’s Chief Plant Health Officer and Head of the UK National Plant Protection Organisation for the UK set the scene by explaining how the risks to the UK are evaluated.   Although 905 threats were identified by July 2016, on the potato front, the number is mercifully small but nonetheless significant.  Pests like Colorado beetle and the bacterial diseases ring rot and brown rot we understand fairly well.  It is new threats such as Epitrix flea beetles which are present in Portugal and Spain, Guatamalan tuber moth which might enter from the Canaries and Zebra Chip, a bacterial disease spread by psyllids that are making authorities sit up at the moment.  Pest and disease intelligence and monitoring of imports all play a major role in keeping these threats out.

Outbreaks of Zebra Chip in the USA and New Zealand and its impact on their processing industries were explored in detail during the meeting.  New Zealand, particularly, suffered substantial financial losses but as in the USA after a lot of investigation the problem has been suppressed to a level that can be lived with – although it remains a background threat.  Both the vector, the potato psyllid, and the pathogen, the bacteria Liberibacter solanacearum, need to be present for the disease but the vector can acquire the bacteria and transmit it into a potato plant quickly.  The general view was that the vector and bacteria entered New Zealand on different hosts - even more reason for the UK to monitor imports to prevent establishment in the UK.

We can learn about our own diseases and pests from the experiences of others around the world and they can learn from us.  For example, the bacterial pathogen Dickeya which is one cause of blackleg and which has been a major issue in Europe and a threat in England has suddenly developed across the USA, apparently spread from seed produced in a single state.  What was startling about the USA outbreaks was that non-emergence was a major consequence of the infected seed, presumably because seed is cut before planting allowing the bacteria good opportunity to rot the mother seed piece.  As a new disease to the USA there was a substantial lack of knowledge about Dickeya in North America.  However, they drafted in UK experience in the shape of Gerry Saddler from SASA and he was able to rapidly progress their understanding of the disease.  AHDB funding for Gerry and others in the UK has ensured we have the knowledge to tackle the disease here and elsewhere. 

Apart from the home of potatoes in South America, where almost all diseases and pests of the crop can be found, across all other continents it is apparent that the main challenges to potato crops are frequently the same.  For example, potato virus Y is one of the most challenging diseases worldwide, particularly in seed certification.  Whilst introducing host resistance is the long term goal, commercial varieties are mostly susceptible.  Reliance on insecticides and oils to prevent spread from aphids remains a key control option.   Luckily, in UK seed certification, PVY continues to be much less of an issue, unless global warming changes our climate substantially.

As a problematic worldwide disease, blackleg presentations featured strongly from home and abroad.  There were no magic solutions presented at the meeting but a lot of longer term research is being undertaken which should improve control in the future.  This included the use of plant derived molecules or bacteriophages to control the disease, the role of alternative hosts and identification of host resistance in breeding populations.  The underlying message from this more fundamental work indicates that alongside the more applied and strategic work that AHDB supports there remains a need for innovation and testing of new solutions to our potato problems.

AHDB funded research was prominent at the EAPR meeting forming a major part of presentations across a wide range of diseases and pests.  These include work on late blight strains and forecasting, PCN and blackleg.  What was very apparent about the presentations was just how applied and focussed the AHDB research was - and just how cost effective. 

Two innovative features of the EAPR meeting were that, firstly, on the third day a good number of UK industry representatives arrived to hear a wide range of international presentations and learn for themselves the breadth and depth of research.  In addition, the fourth day of the meeting was attendance at Potatoes in Practice where delegates had the opportunity to see the GB industry in depth and appreciate not just the role the AHDB has in KT but the range of research they support.


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