Giving Thanks to Potato Breeders

Published online: Nov 28, 2016 Fertilizer, Seed Potatoes Vanessa Wong
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Over the Thanksgiving holiday Americans boiled, mashed, baked, and buttered a whole lot of potatoes. In fact, thanks to meat-avoiding vegetarians and everyone else who just doesn’t like turkey, potatoes are the most commonly eaten Thanksgiving food, according to research group NPD. And as Christmas approaches, plenty more potato dishes will be finding their way to American dinner tables.

All those holiday dishes send sales of potatoes skyrocketing during the holidays—last year, sales were up 64 percent in Thanksgiving compared to the week prior.

“During the holidays, potatoes are our biggest seller in fresh produce,” said Molly Blakeman, a spokesperson at Walmart, the country’s largest grocer. In November and December, the discount retailer sells more than 210 million pounds of bagged potatoes and over 1,000 truckloads of sweet potatoes.

It’s the type of starchy gorgefest that hits a soft spot for potato nerds like David Holm, a researcher at Colorado State University who has been breeding all manner of spuds since 1978, including colorful potatoes like Purple Majesty and the pink-fleshed Mountain Rose.

Another variety dubbed Masquerade bears a trademark purple and gold tie-dye pattern on the skin. “It’s always pleasing to know we have a variety that helps someone, a consumer or a producer,” Holm says.

The lumpy tuber may have a moment in the spotlight on this food-centric holiday, but potatoes are a central part of American cuisine year-round. They’re America’s leading vegetable crop, according to the USDA, thanks in large part to American consumers’ love of french fries and chips. Processed food businesses purchase more than half of all potatoes sold in the U.S., meaning most potatoes are not eaten fresh. As the crop plays such a pivotal role in American diets, researchers like Holm have been working to breed or engineer a better potato.

I asked Holm what the iPhone of potatoes would be—the innovation that would change potato farming forever. He laughed and gave an answer that’s a lot less exciting to regular folk than touchscreens and mobile internet: “A lot of research has been on more efficient use of fertilizer,” he says; using less nitrogen can save money and is better environmentally.

There are other pressing concerns too, like disease resistance. The USDA last month approved the commercial planting of two varieties of genetically engineered potatoes—Ranger Russet and Atlantic—that heroically resist the disease that caused the Irish potato famine, and (slightly less heroically) are also less vulnerable to bruising and black spots. Ranger Russet and Atlantic GM potatoes must now be approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

While potato breeders have historically focused on changes like this that improve the crop for growers, Holm says in the last 20 years, there’s been a greater emphasis on consumers.

Potatoes USA, the country’s potato marketing organization, will readily tell consumers that the standard potato is already an excellent nutritional source—but there’s work to be done yet.

The bright-colored flesh of the Purple Majesty doesn’t only have aesthetic appeal, Holm says—colored tubers are more nutritionally packed. He pointed to research showing that per serving, the purple potatoes contain more antioxidants than pomegranate juice and dried blueberries. He also said that potato extracts have been shown to fight cancer cells in lab tests. Meanwhile, researchers are using potato extracts that boost satiety—the sense of feeling full after eating—in dieting products, under the brand name Slendesta.

Of course, most home cooks will just be preparing standard, low-cost russet potatoes this week; the kind that can feed a large party for about $0.29 per pound. But Holm still prefers his Purple Majesties.

“You can mash them with evaporated milk and they turn this lovely lavender color,” he says. “And it tastes good.”

 

Source: BuzzFeed News