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Seed potato health vital for growers – and the entire industry

30 January 2014

With growers becoming increasingly aware of the significance of plant health and bio-security, the seed potato team at AHDB Potatoes have been working hard with plant health authorities to encourage the potato industry to grow only healthy seed potatoes.

Robert Burns, head of seed and export at AHDB Potatoes and a former government plant health expert, is keen to communicate this message, especially when growers are planning their seed purchases and planting around now. “Buying and growing only healthy seed potatoes is fundamental to our industry” Robert explains. “We need to keep our national seed potato crop free of plant diseases such as Ring Rot, not found in GB. If allowed to establish themselves in the seed chain, these diseases could never be eradicated, and GB’s potato industry would be severely affected by significant yield and quality losses.”
Ring rotRing Rot, present in Europe, is ineradicable and may escape detection for several growing seasons. However, when the ensuing symptoms do materialise they are all-too-devastating and  would render at least 40% of subsequent ware crops unmarketable - not even usable for stock feed. A Ring Rot outbreak on a Welsh farm in 2004 cost that business £400k to contain. When Dutch authorities NAK notified the UK plant health authorities in 2012 about an infected seed consignment (which showed no symptoms) from The Netherlands into GB, AHDB Potatoes worked closely with the plant health authorities to contain the incursion. This cooperation, and the fact that the company concerned employed best practice when handling the unknowingly-infected seed, managed to successfully contain the infection. Successful containment was largely due to the affected company’s seed handling best practice - their seed stocks were fully segregated and this helped to simplify the clean-up operation significantly.
A less meticulous company could have unwittingly allowed the Ring Rot pathogen to take hold.
Since the 2012 incursion, the company concerned have further tightened their seed sourcing policy and now only use GB seed with a minimum of two years provenance, with European sources only used as an absolute last resort. If European seed has to be used then the seed is held off-site and samples are taken for testing (using 4000 tubers/25 tons of seed). Plus, their store and grader cleaning and hygiene regime is even more rigorous.
Tuber testing for Ring Rot is prolonged and expensive (growers bear the costs of disease containment). It is far better to avoid the risk altogether and obtain seed from trusted sources within GB. As such, AHDB Potatoes sponsors the seed health assurance scheme, Safe Haven, part of the Red Tractor scheme. Under the Red Tractor ‘umbrella’, Safe Haven offers complete assurance to commercial growers on the origin, health and provenance of GB seed potatoes. 
No-one wants to bring ineradicable diseases into this country. At AHDB Potatoes’s recent Winter Forums, Robert stressed “We want to reinforce the message that seed potatoes grown under the Safe Haven scheme should be used wherever possible, and those that use seed that has been imported run the risk of bringing in devastating diseases, which would not only threaten their own business but also the health of the entire GB potato industry.” 
Commercial potato growers can help to protect our industry by using seed produced under the Safe Haven scheme – if our national seed potato supply chain ever became infected with an ineradicable disease from imported seed, there is nothing we could do about it.
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