WARE potato producers were given a stark warning last week that using imported seed could lead to a long-term loss for short term gain in the wider industry.

At stake is the hard-won reputation of Scotland's lucrative seed potato trade and industry specialists lined up to pan those using imported seed at last week's AHDB's Seed Potato Industry event in St Andrews last week.

Imported seed could put the UK's £150m per year seed trade at considerable risk from diseases such as brown rot and ring rot, both of which are not found in the UK but in some areas from where the seed is being imported from.

Dr Ron Clayton, AHDB Potatoes' strategy manager, said that his organisation will be hammering home to producers that they have a key role to play in protecting the industry. "Our reputation with seed potatoes, especially via our Safe Haven programme for seed production, has been hard won and is precious to our international seed trade."

He also pledged to work closely with the seed potato sector and Scottish Government to ensure that the industry maintains low levels of the fungal disease, blackleg.

The same theme of collective responsibility for protecting the seed trade, was also applicable to reducing blackleg infections, he told the conference, announcing that there would be £300,000 pumped in to a project aimed at producing a blueprint for controlling the disease.

Dr Clayton pointed out that a similar investment in blight control had produced a strong set of guidelines which had been an industry-wide breakthrough in controlling the scourge.

"There are as many as 80 different ways of blackleg getting in to a crop. We need to identify the keys areas of control which will stop this happening," he told the 200-delegates at the event.

He added: “Freedom from key notifiable diseases such as ring rot and brown rot along with excellent low-virus status, continue to make GB-produced seed attractive under the Safe Haven scheme. Our 2012 plant health strategy has a clear focus on reputation and long term sustainability always trump risky short term commercial gains.

“We have asked every single delegate to commit to reviewing and improving their management of disease risk and we’re confident that our reputation as a high health seed producer will be maintained,” he said.

AHDB's head of export development, Rob Burns, pointed out there could be record levels of seed exported this year. “The harvest looks to have a good seed fraction. This means we could see a higher volume of seed potatoes exported from the UK, up from 80,000 tonnes last export season.

“Once more, Egypt will be a key market for exports – we are likely to see in excess of 50,000 tonnes sent over there.”

He added that AHDB is also exploring untapped markets interested in UK seed, with an incoming delegation from Russia viewing the Scottish sector, which accounts for 80% of the UK's total seed potato production.

Producers at the meeting also heard that while the seed potato industry would not be a victim per se of the Brexit vote, as many overseas customers were not in the EU, but it would still have a knock-on effect.

AHDB’s export expert, Peter Hardwick, said: “We could find other trade deals interrupted where they rely on EU trade agreements and are based on EU regulations.

“For example, in our relationship with Egypt where we export large volumes of seed, we have an 'Association Agreement' there which is based on being within the EU, therefore we need to ensure that something else replaces it when we leave.

"This is, of course, entirely possible but does require focus and resource to make sure it happens. The last thing an industry heavily reliant on exports needs is unexpected obstacles stopping our goods from getting to key markets at the last minute.”

There is a lot at stake, said Mr Hardwick. Moving to a WTO tariff-based system would, for instance put a 14.1% 'tax' on crisps and cooked potatoes from the UK to other countries. "Don't assume that a lot of things will fall into place – it's up to all of us to ensure that it does," he warned.

About the Safe Haven scheme

THE Safe Haven voluntary certification scheme for seed potatoes was introduced in 2004 basically to protect the industry from ring rot and now more than 60% of British seed is part of it.

It comprises scientifically robust protocols that ensure best practice for seed growing and handling and require businesses who are members of the scheme to be audited annually to ensure compliance. It also provides additional protection against other harmful organisms like brown rot and soft rots caused by Dickeya species.

The 'ring fence' the scheme provides ensures that all seed within the scheme is only grown from Safe Haven-sourced seed or disease-free nuclear stock and this helps protect against any pests and diseases not found in Britain which affect potatoes.