The UK’s potato industry stands at a turning point following the precipitous wind-up of the research and services offered to the sector by AHDB Potatoes in the wake of the levy payers’ ‘No’ vote.

With years of research, experience and facilities – along with £6m of annual funding – in the sector being brought to a swift end, the focus at last week's major industry event, Potatoes in Practice, a real event held just outside Dundee, was on securing a surviving legacy for work already carried out and ensuring that the investment in research necessary to keep Scottish and UK producers at the forefront of the global potato market continued.

Scientists and industry commentators shared the view that while commercial organisations were likely to continue some areas of near market work required to translate research into on-farm applications, collaboration within the industry was needed to avoid the risk of such an approach leading to fragmentation, duplication and poor targeting of resources.

Dr Phil Burgess, head of, the partnership organisation overarching the potato activities of the James Hutton Institute, the SRUC and SASA, said that a Twitter poll carried out in the run up to the event showed that over 50% of respondents wanted independent research work to continue and that such a scheme should be backed by some form of grower-led organisation.

Scientists from the JHI outlined plans for a 'Potato Innovation and Translation Hub' which would operate as a centre of excellence to translate innovation and research into solutions for the potato industry.

A collaborative partnership of researchers, knowledge brokers and commercial companies, the hub would aim to facilitate the speedy adoption of new research products across the potato value chain.

Professor Lesley Torrance, executive director of science at the institute, said plans for such a facility had been considered for some time in light of the important role played by Scotland in the UK’s £771m potato sector - and the crop’s role as the world’s third most important food staple.

She said that in partnership with SRUC and SASA, had been set up in 2019 with partners, SRUC and SASA, and had been working with ADAS to rescue the work threatened by the closure of the AHDBs Sutton Bridge potato storage facility.

“It now seems a natural progression to go further and explore the potential to establish a potato innovation and translation hub given the wider industry needs,” said Professor Torrance.

She added that while the new hub would be based in Scotland, it would have relevance and impact across the whole of the UK and beyond: “It’s hoped that the hub will act as the focal point to listen to and understand industry needs, propose, co-construct and deliver solutions and support to growers and other stakeholders in the supply chain. It will also train the next generation in skills needed for the future,” she said.

The professor added that there was an urgent need, both in the UK and across the globe, to grow varieties adapted to the changing climate and with reduced inputs for sustainable and resilient production systems.

“To do this, recent advances in breeding technologies can be harnessed to fast track the breeding of new varieties; new developments in modelling, sensors and drone technologies are driving integrated pest management solutions,” Professor Torrance added.

With more than 100 scientists involved in the potato sector working at the JHI, she said it was ideally placed for taking cutting-edge science and developing it all the way through to on-farm applications. She said that the partners were set to enter discussions with the industry to see how the plans could best be taken forward.

Also speaking at the event, industry commentator, Archie Gibson – executive director of Agrico and a backer of the Better Growers Group, which hopes to maintain a concerted industry approach to future near-market research work – said that there was a desperate need for leadership within the sector to maintain cohesion.

He said that the Scottish Society of Crop Research, together with NFU Scotland had spoken to producers to see which of the AHDB services had been particularly valued by the sector and to target which areas of work were most important to the industry.

Gibson said that particular emphasis had been placed on maintaining the services which provided growers with regular forecasts of the threat levels of two major scourges of the sector – potato blight and virus diseases spread by aphids:

“And the importance of these services are such that we will be asking the UK and Scottish Government’s to provide funding to support this work – which has a direct and immediate effect on growers’ management – for two years until a new industry-backed scheme can be set up to fund it.”

He said that state investment in such stop-gap funding of around £280,000 over the two years represented excellent value on both productivity and environmental fronts.

Gibson revealed that there had also been strong support for retaining the world-leading work carried out on potato storage – and he indicated that while the Sutton Bridge site which focused on this work was due to be wound down and sold off, possibly for demolition – satellite sites around the country could take advantage of some of the equipment, including the proposed potato quality facility planned for Forfar.

But, he warned that although some collective industry funding would be required, the term ‘levy’ should be avoided.

£2.2m to fight PCN

There was some good news at Potatoes in Practice with the revelation that £2.2m of funding has been made available to investigate the growing threat which the spread of potato cyst nematodes (PCN) represents to Scotland’s world-famous seed potato industry.

With the production of seed potatoes and also of ornamental bulbs banned on soils infected with the two main species, globodera rostochiensis and globodera pallida, the spread of the pests around the main growing areas is currently on-course to wipe out the country’s £112m a year seed industry within 30 years.

As a resultm a working group was set up in 2020 to identify a strategy to deal with the threat, with the current exclusion of land due to PCN infection estimated to cost the sector £25m a year.

Funded by the Scottish Government, the work will be co-ordinated by the country’s Plant Health Centre (PHC) and will involve James Hutton Institute, Scotland's Rural College (SRUC), Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland (BioSS), Soil Essentials, Scottish Agronomy and Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA).

Environment minister, Mairi McAllan, said the project was hugely important to a key sector of the rural economy, while project leader, Professor Ian Toth of the JHI, said the approach was a fantastic example of how Scottish industry, government and academia could work together.

Archie Gibson, of Agrico UK, said the data gathered since 2010 had highlighted the scale of the threat, adding: “As effective crop protection products become ever more restricted, this project … is essential for the future economic sustainability of the potato seed industry.”