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BP2015 – Innovating for success

Publication Date: 
28 October 2015

BP2015 – Innovating for success

Innovation in levy-funded research and development is a key theme for AHDB Potatoes staff at BP2015, where a brand new approach will be profiled.

Innovation drives profit and the brand new AHDB Potatoes Research and Innovation Strategy 2015-2020 is top of the agenda at the upcoming BP2015 event in Harrogate.

Alongside a redoubled focus on meeting consumer needs it is embedding a strong base of skilled scientists, well-connected with each other and the industry, to ensure the research pipeline keeps flowing and coming up with innovations that demonstrably deliver value for money.

“There was a concern that scientific capabilities were dwindling, so we have taken a very conscious decision to put funding in place to give confidence to younger researchers,” says Rob Clayton, Strategy Director at AHDB Potatoes. “We need to act now to ensure we have the expertise in place 10, 15, 20 years from now.

“There is also a fresh focus on connecting the science programmes with the needs of end users, so we are not just looking at crop protection and agronomy, but consistency of product and nutritional profiles too. The future is about healthy foods. Getting those issues right will ensure producers are better able to survive in a busy marketplace.”

Mike Storey, AHDB Potatoes’ Head of Research and Development, emphasises the strategy’s strong focus on innovation. “Rather than exploiting technologies that are looking to fit into a place in our current systems, we need to turn that thinking on its head, and promote the end-user relevance of new innovations, so industry may need to change the way it does things, so it can exploit new technologies to the maximum.”

The strategy has three core themes – producing efficiently for the marketplace; promoting new technologies so they are exploited to benefit end users; and protecting the industry against future challenges.

There is also a shift away from three-year projects, to longer-term funding, with partnerships leveraging other funding streams to create a rolling programme of studies. Soils and water, and agronomy and storage are the first two areas to benefit from this approach, with applications now invited for a £1.5m programme to look at rotations, rooting, soil structure and water, which is also supported by funding from AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds, Dairy and Horticulture.

“We’re looking to build an inter-locking jigsaw of connected research to deliver clear business and environmental benefits,” says Dr Storey.

Consumer focus

The need for an even stronger focus on consumer needs was all too evident at the recent World Potato Congress in China. “How potatoes are used and presented was a very strong theme, for both the fresh and processed sectors.”   

Potatoes are now officially seen as a staple food in China, bringing huge investments in research, such as the CIP-China Centre for Potato Research outside Beijing, the largest such facility in the Asia Pacific region.

“Potato consumption in China is currently around 40kg/head, with a goal of 60kg/head, partly to help with food security, but also because of their nutritional value compared with rice, and their better use of water. Compared with rice they are seen as drought tolerant.”

China is working hard on innovative use and presentation of potatoes, including potato flours for breads, doughs and potato noodles. “There is a lot of interest in the health benefits of potatoes, including their anti-oxidant properties, with purple and red varieties attracting a particularly high profile. They even have baked potatoes with potato noodles served on top!”

Succession planning

In the UK a new three-stranded approach to grow industry talent so the scientific pipeline creates science with real practical benefits for the future is being deployed. It embraces research fellowships, studentships and additional bursaries.

“Over the past 30 years applied research has not had the investment needed and the infrastructure has declined, such that the industry hasn’t been as well served as it might have been,” says Dr Storey. “AHDB is now a major supporter of applied agricultural research.”

AHDB Potatoes’ research fellowships aim to retain key technical skills within the industry, giving new researchers the chance to work alongside experienced scientists to not only meet current research needs, but also develop experimental and analytical skills to better leverage new funding and effectively conduct work of value to levy payers in the future.

Encouraging researchers to engage more effectively with industry and develop knowledge transfer and communication skills are key issues, Dr Storey says.

PhD studentships are also being created, including three new ones announced this autumn for a study of computerised fluid dynamics modelling to aid air distribution in potato stores; research into PCN resistant varieties; and an investigation of slug control in conjunction with AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds. Bursaries are also available to extend existing work.

Examples of how the new Research and Innovation Strategy is delivering will be on show at BP2015, including:  

Nanoparticles for functional foods

Karen Davies’ PhD on micro-nutrient fortification at Nottingham Trent University aims to improve the role of the potato as a functional food, especially for supplementing iron intake.

Nanoparticles of iron oxide, measuring just 7-15 nanometres, are providing a novel soluble fertiliser that can markedly boost the iron content of potatoes. A nanoparticle is a microscopic particle measuring less than 100 nanometers (1/10th of a micron or 1 billionth of a meter), which makes it particularly easy for plants to absorb.

“Dietary anaemia is a huge problem, affecting 46% of people globally, and 25% in the UK,” says Ms Davies. “Potatoes are naturally high in iron, with a typical portion supplying as much as two portions of beef steak. Fortified potatoes could be a low cost, safe way of providing 100% of our dietary nutritional requirement.” 

Her industry collaboration vindicates the AHDB’s drive for a better link with industry. “My PhD has changed completely,” she says. “Originally it was going to look in depth at how nanoparticles get into potato plants. But having listened to industry it is clear that we need to first prove the benefits that can be achieved, and only then look at understanding how it happens, so we can fine tune it.”

Ms Davies’ supervisor, Dr Gareth Cave, has developed a machine capable of producing high outputs of nanoparticles, up to 1kg/hour, making a fertiliser approach potentially viable. 

Field trials are underway with a view to developing a soil-applied, or maybe even foliar-applied, fertiliser soon. A nanoparticle feed for chilli production is to be launched in early 2016 and one for salad crops later the same year.

Healthy low-GI spuds

Improving the health profile of potatoes is the goal for PhD researcher Lara Hilley with the Cell and Molecular Sciences Group at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee and The Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health in Aberdeen.

The aim is to use a genetic mapping technique called association genetics to help overcome the potato’s reputation as a high glycaemic index (GI) food, with all the implications that has for type 2 diabetes.

Her research focuses on using fruits and vegetables to prevent dietary diseases. “In human consumption terms, potatoes are the third largest food crop in the world,” explains Ms Hilley. But potatoes have a reputation as a high GI food, so Ms Hilley is assessing the starch content of 300 genotypes, over two years, in the hope that marker genes for low GI strains can be developed.

“We’ve identified lines from year one data with starch that digests at a similar rate as Australia’s already marketed low GI variety Carisma, which is encouraging. Carisma has a GI value of 53, which is considered low GI, compared with the more typical high GI types scoring 85-104,” she says. Now the aim is to assess year two genotypes and identify candidate genes and markers to help breeders develop low GI varieties, using association mapping.

The AHDB studentship programme has encouraged networking, particularly through an AHDB-wide PhD development day at Harper Adams University, she notes.

Banishing tuber greening

Dr David Firman, head of NIAB CUF’s Potato Agronomy Research Group, received the first of three £150,000 research fellowships to develop a new generation of top potato scientists.

Under his guidance research associate Simon Smart is studying tuber formation, and specifically the effects of differences in stolon architecture on tuber greening, size distribution and diseases such as common scab. 

“Greening remains a major issue, with over 5% rejection typical and some crops losing more than 20% of total yield to greening,” he says. “If it was a disease people would have paid much more attention to it.

“The overall growth of potato crops is fairly well understood, but exactly what happens underground is still rather less clear. Varieties differ in the length and depth of the stolons they produce, but what else is involved, and how can ridge shape or planting depth mitigate effects, and ridge cracking exacerbate them?

Working with growers in commercial crops through Greenvale and CUPGRA (Cambridge University Potato Growers Research Association) ensures he hears what growers think, and the views of the trade. “They certainly come up with a lot of useful comments.”

BP2015 event

At BP2015 in Harrogate on 12 and 13 November 2015 the whole industry can catch-up with the new AHDB Potatoes Research and Innovation strategy, get a taste of some of the latest research, and perhaps most importantly of all meet some of the new generation of researchers. Admission is free if pre-registered at www.bp2015.co.uk

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