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Unlocking the potential of the humble spud: Scientists explore ways to climate-proof potatoes

The potato, a staple food for millions around the world, faces a significant threat from climate change. Rising temperatures, unpredictable rainfall patterns, and extreme weather events are jeopardizing potato yields and posing a risk to global food security. However, scientists are actively exploring innovative solutions to bolster the resilience of this crucial crop.

A comprehensive review published in Frontiers in Plant Science titled “Improving Potato Stress Tolerance and Tuber Yield Under a Climate Change Scenario – A Current Overview” delves into the latest advancements in potato research, highlighting promising strategies to safeguard its future.

The Looming Threat to a Global Staple: Potatoes Under Pressure

The potato, often taken for granted, plays a vital role in global food security. As the world’s fourth most important food crop, it provides essential nutrients and sustenance to millions, particularly in developing countries. However, the changing climate presents a formidable threat to potato production, jeopardizing the livelihoods of farmers and the food security of vulnerable populations.

Climate Change: A Recipe for Disaster

The impacts of climate change on potato cultivation are multifaceted and pose significant challenges:

Rising Temperatures: Potatoes are cool-season crops, thriving in moderate temperatures. As global temperatures rise, heat stress becomes a major concern. Elevated temperatures disrupt vital physiological processes, leading to reduced photosynthesis, impaired tuber development, and ultimately, lower yields.
Erratic Rainfall and Drought: Climate change disrupts rainfall patterns, leading to more frequent and severe droughts in many regions. Potatoes require consistent moisture throughout their growth cycle, and water scarcity can severely impact tuber development and overall yield. Drought conditions also increase the salinity of soils, further hindering potato growth.
Extreme Weather Events: The increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as floods, heatwaves, and storms, pose a significant threat to potato crops. These events can cause physical damage to plants, soil erosion, and the spread of pests and diseases.

Beyond Direct Impacts: A Cascade of Challenges

The effects of climate change extend beyond the immediate impact on potato plants. They trigger a cascade of challenges that further threaten potato production:

Pest and Disease Pressure: Warmer temperatures and altered precipitation patterns create favorable conditions for pests and diseases to thrive. This leads to increased crop losses and necessitates greater reliance on pesticides, raising concerns about environmental sustainability and human health.
Reduced Water Availability: As water resources become scarcer due to climate change, competition for water among different sectors intensifies. This can lead to water shortages for agriculture, impacting potato production and potentially driving up food prices.
Soil Degradation: Extreme weather events and unsustainable agricultural practices contribute to soil erosion and degradation. This reduces soil fertility and water-holding capacity, further hindering potato growth and productivity.

The Global Implications of a Threatened Staple

The potential decline in potato production due to climate change has far-reaching consequences for global food security:

Increased Hunger and Malnutrition: Potatoes are a crucial source of carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals for millions of people worldwide. Reduced availability and affordability of potatoes can exacerbate hunger and malnutrition, particularly in developing countries where potatoes are a dietary staple.
Economic Instability: Potato cultivation supports the livelihoods of countless farmers and workers throughout the value chain. Declining potato production can lead to job losses, reduced incomes, and economic hardship for rural communities.
Social Unrest: Food shortages and price hikes resulting from reduced potato production can contribute to social unrest and political instability, particularly in regions heavily reliant on this staple crop.

The urgency to address the threats facing potato production is clear. By investing in research, adopting sustainable agricultural practices, and implementing climate-resilient strategies, we can safeguard this vital crop and ensure food security for generations to come.

Harnessing the Power of Genetics: Breeding for Resilience

One of the primary approaches discussed in the paper is the development of climate-resilient potato varieties through breeding programs. Scientists are tapping into the genetic diversity of wild potato species and landraces, which possess inherent tolerance to various environmental stressors. By crossing these hardy varieties with cultivated potatoes, researchers aim to create new cultivars that can withstand the challenges of a changing climate.

The review highlights several key traits targeted by breeding programs:

Drought tolerance: Developing potatoes with deeper root systems and improved water-use efficiency to thrive in water-scarce conditions.
Heat tolerance: Selecting for varieties that can maintain physiological processes and tuber development even under high temperatures.
Salinity tolerance: Breeding potatoes that can cope with increasing soil salinity, a growing concern in many agricultural regions.
Pest and disease resistance: Incorporating resistance genes to combat the spread of pathogens and pests exacerbated by climate change.

Beyond Breeding: Exploring Biotechnological Tools

In addition to conventional breeding, the review explores the potential of modern biotechnological tools to enhance potato resilience. These techniques offer precise and efficient ways to introduce desired traits into potato varieties.

Genetic engineering: This approach involves directly modifying the genes of potatoes to introduce specific traits such as drought tolerance or pest resistance.
Marker-assisted selection: This technique utilizes DNA markers to identify genes associated with desirable traits, enabling breeders to select superior varieties with greater accuracy and speed.

The Role of Sustainable Agricultural Practices

The review emphasizes the importance of adopting sustainable agricultural practices to mitigate the impacts of climate change on potato production. These practices include:

Water management: Implementing efficient irrigation systems and water conservation techniques to optimize water usage.
Soil management: Improving soil health through practices like cover cropping, reduced tillage, and organic amendments to enhance water retention and nutrient availability.
Integrated pest management: Employing a combination of biological control agents, cultural practices, and judicious pesticide use to manage pests and diseases sustainably.

Looking Ahead: A Future of Resilient Potatoes

The paper underscores the need for collaborative efforts among researchers, breeders, policymakers, and farmers to ensure the future of potato production. Sharing knowledge, resources, and technologies is crucial for developing and implementing effective solutions to address the challenges posed by climate change.

The research presented in the review offers hope for the future of potato cultivation in a changing climate. By harnessing the power of genetics, biotechnology, and sustainable agricultural practices, scientists and farmers can work together to ensure that this vital crop continues to nourish populations around the world.

As research progresses and innovative solutions are implemented, the humble potato may yet prove to be a champion of food security in the face of global challenges.

Author: Lukie Pieterse, Editor/Publisher of Potato News Today
Front. Plant Sci., 13 May 2019
Sec. Plant Abiotic Stress
Volume 10 – 2019 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpls.2019.00563