Potato Research Takes Root at University of Lethbridge

Published online: Jan 20, 2017 Fungicide, Insecticide Sarah Lawrynuik
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Lab-based research has begun at the University of Lethbridge in southern Alberta for the school’s new research chair in potato science.  

Dmytro Yevtushenk​o is a plant biologist who has studied potatoes for more than 25 years. He took up the new research chair position last January.

“It’s a pleasure to work with potatoes. There’s so much information out there about potatoes,” says Yevtushenk​o.  

His first year at the university was spent crafting new courses that will train students in aspects of potato science. The hope from industry stakeholders is that it will entice new people into the business. 

“We have a shortage of people in the agriculture industry,” says Yevtushenko. “And our task, our purpose, is to prepare employees, new scientists.” 

The research chair and his program are funded by Cavendish Farms, Potato Growers of Alberta (PGA), McCain Foods and Lamb Weston

 “[The program] will develop specific potato professionals,” says Lee Gleim, the director of operations for Cavendish Farms in Lethbridge.

Gleim said the hope is that this research program will help move western Canada potato research up to a level that parallels what is already seen in other parts of the country. 

“A lot of the potato research done in Canada today is done on the eastern side of Canada,” says Gleim. “We wanted something specific to southern Alberta. And being involved in this project has allowed us to do that. It’s going to give us specific potato research based on the local geographical region.” 

Yevtushenk​o’s first graduate students started work this week. They will be studying the physiological age of seed potatoes, the benefit being that if they can more accurately hone the aging of seed potatoes, they can be more efficiently grown because crops will sprout and germinate at the same time. The team will also be looking at various potato diseases. 

Yevtushenk​o estimates that he will have roughly a dozen research assistants working under him by the time the project is at full capacity. 

While Yevtushenk​o is just getting his lab-based research off the ground, professor Dan Johnson has been spending a significant amount of time in potato fields since 2013. Johnson, an entomologist by trade, has been keeping an eye on the potato psyllid, which is found in southern Alberta, if only in very small numbers. 

“We’ve been monitoring for it since 2013,” says Johnson. “It’s a laborious process and we know the numbers are very low, but we do have it.”

The concern is that the psyllid carries a pathogen that causes a disease called zebra chip. Zebra chip can wipe out crops in one fell swoop, as has been seen in New Zealand and the U.S. 

“It is a problem that has to be watched for and managed, partly because the solutions themselves can be problems as well,” says Johnson. “So the whole thing has to be approached with a certain amount of nuance and science so we don’t make the situation worse.”

Alberta is the province with the third-largest production capacity in Canada, behind Manitoba and Prince Edward IslandAlberta’s potatoes are valued at almost $1 billion. More than 80 percent of those potatoes are further processed upon harvest. 

“We need to remember that the potato is the No. 4 food source in the world,” says Yevtushenko. 

The investment in Alberta-based research goes hand in hand with infrastructure expenditures in the area. In late 2016, Cavendish Farms announced it was building a $350 million processing plant in Lethbridge.

“It’s a pretty good sector of the agriculture industry,” says Yevtushenko. “It’s steadily growing. With other sectors of the economy, you see it going up and down. [The potato sector] is not very fast, but it is steadily growing.”

 

Source: CBC News