WARSAW, Poland – Russia is teetering on the brink of a large-scale potato crisis ignited by the same virulent, fungal-like pathogen, Phytophthora infestans , more commonly called late blight, that was responsible for the 19th century Irish potato famine.
But there is hope in the form of a blight-resistant potato variety, New York 121, which Cornell University scientists have provided to Russia for testing in the hopes of preventing food shortages. Currently, Cornell's CEEM program is the only non-Russian group actively trying to resolve the Russian potato problems.
Annually, Russia loses 4 million tons of potato, more than 10 percent of total production, due to late blight. Virulent strains of the pathogen are now spreading to important potato--producing areas in Russia and to Central and Eastern Europe.
The late blight threat is still very important and even critical in some regions, said Alexei V. Filippov, of the All Russian Institute of Phytopathology, addressing a group of 58 international agricultural researchers from 12 countries at the Collaborative Research on Potato Late Blight workshop in Poland last week. The workshop was co-hosted by the Cornell-Eastern Europe-Mexico (CEEM) International Collaborative Program on Potato Late Blight Control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Foreign Agriculture Service (USDA-FAS). "In Central and Eastern Europe, late blight is a very serious disease, often causing considerable losses in the field and storage," said Filippov.
Potatoes account for more than 3.2 million hectares (about 7 million acres) of Russian farmland. Russia is the world's second largest producer of potatoes, behind China, holding about 7 percent of the global market. Domestically, it is the number two crop behind wheat and it is considered Russia's "second bread."
To see if the Cornell-bred New York 121 potato, as well as other varieties of blight-resistant potatoes, can withstand the rigors of small Russian farms, Patrick Russo, a CEEM technical adviser who is a researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and Russian scientists, have made plans to test these new potato cultivars in St. Petersburg and Moscow. This testing will prepare the seed for Russian registration and distribution. Registration would allow the seed to be sold as "certified" to the millions of small "kitchen gardeners" in Russia who depend on their own production of potatoes on plots of less than one-third of an acre.
The scientists meeting in Warsaw said that New York 121 is not a silver bullet to solve all of Russia's agricultural woes, but is a small, early step toward sustainability and modernization of a system that has long been at the mercy of pestilence. In other studies, additional potato varieties developed for resistance to late blight in Eastern Europe are being tested in actual kitchen garden locations and in experiments conducted by Filippov and William E. Fry, a plant pathologist and senior associate dean at Cornell's New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They will examine the spread of aggressive strains of late blight now being monitored in different potato-producing areas of Russia. By tracking the spread of the diverse forms of this pathogen, potato scientists will be able to better deploy resistant potato varieties developed at Cornell and elsewhere.
In many regions of Russia, more than 90 percent of agricultural acreage is worked by small kitchen-garden growers who cannot afford certified blight-clean seed, which is more expensive than noncertified seed. Nor can they afford pesticides to ward off late blight or other pests that afflict potatoes. For government-run and commercial farms, the cost of pesticides to combat late blight can be as much as three or four times the cost to Western farmers. That is because the pesticides are made by agro-chemical companies in the West, and Russia must buy them with a weak ruble.
For more than a decade, the St. Petersburg area has been widely infected with potato late blight, said Russo, and Ewa Zimnoch-Guzowska, director of potato research at the Mlochow Potato Research Center near Warsaw. Small land holders in St. Petersburg, with a population pushing 6 million people, tend their subsistence gardens on the weekends outside the city. Russo said the plots are truly organic and once the blight ruins the crop (which has happened in eight of the last 10 years), their annual supply of potatoes for their families is greatly reduced.
Russo explained that much of the potato seed used in Russia is of inferior quality and is not late-blight resistant. In addition, the moist climate of northern and central Russia – where the humidity can average 75 percent in June, July and August – is very favorable to late blight.
To compound Russia's problem, the N. I. Vavilov Institute's potato germplasm bank in Pushkin has fallen into disrepair because of funding cuts. Potato seed and tubers are now infected with viruses and pathogens and must be sent to the Polish Mlochow facility to be restored. To alleviate this problem, specific training programs on virus detection and clean-up procedures for producing clean potato seed have been started by CEEM in the St. Petersburg region.
This center also has been provided with computers and Internet access to be in global contact with researchers. Researchers at Vavilov research center are now able for the first time to gain access to current developments on late blight control.
Potato cultivar New York 121 is a small white potato able to fend off late blight as well as other pests such as golden nematodes, scab and potato virus Y (PVY). "This is another in a short line of potatoes resistant to late blight," said Robert Plaisted, Cornell professor emeritus of plant breeding who created the variety, speaking on the potato's introduction last year in New York. "Resistance to late blight is one of the hardest things to breed for in potatoes," he said. New York 121's resistance to the golden nematode, late blight, scab and PVY is a rare combination, he noted.
Development of New York 121 dates back more than 30 years when Plaisted acquired seeds of potato varieties grown in the Andes mountains of South America. Repeated selection for adaptation to the New York region – a region climatically similar to the northern and central parts of Russia – and for disease resistance produced the selection E74-7, the mother of New York 121. This selection was important because of its extreme resistance to potato mosaic viruses.
In 1984, Plaisted obtained seeds from the International Potato Center in Peru that had resistance to multiple races of the golden nematode, a soil-borne pest. One generation of breeding produced N43-288, the male parent of New York 121. This parent is mostly of Peruvian ancestry, but includes a wild species from Argentina.
Ten years ago, Plaisted dusted the female's (E74-7) pistil with the male's (N43-288) pollen and bred a potato with multiple resistances. Typically it takes 14 years to bring a newly tested and developed potato to market, but New York 121 took less than a decade. In addition to its ability to resist late blight, scab and certain nematodes, it is a mid-season potato that will be good for boiling, perhaps even baking – seemingly ideal for Russian subsistence farmers.
The conference participants endorsed the idea of implementing a collaborative project involving CEEM, USDA-FAS and local institutions in Central and Eastern Europe to conduct on-farm integrated late blight disease management trials with emphasis on testing and making promising blight resistant potato varieties available in the region. A synopsis and strategy paper for promoting this work has been developed and will form the basis for future research.