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Researchers and farmers testing alternative solutions to protect the high health status of the UK seed potato industry. How seed potato trials are helping to control disease

Researchers and farmers testing alternative solutions to protect the high health status of the UK seed potato industry.

With chemistry to protect seed crops fast disappearing from the toolbox, experts from the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society Presidential Initiative are exploring ways agronomist can work with farmers to develop more integrated pest management strategies.

Scottish Agronomy has been working with potato grower Jim Reid, who has been involved with seed potato trials for more than a decade at Milton of Mathers Farm, near St Cyrus, in south Aberdeenshire.

Agronomists and Mr Reid have been studying the benefits and practicality of spreading straw mulch and applying mineral oils to the crop canopy – and comparing this integrated approach with the effectiveness of using a pyrethroid insecticide.

Climate pressures

Trials in Aberdeenshire and Fife found that applying a straw mulch led to a 49% reduction  in mosaic virus, with a 54% reduction when mineral oil was applied. A pyrethroid insecticide increased mosaic virus.

Scottish Agronomy expert Eric Anderson said science was needed more than ever to solve some of the climate pressures threatening crops. The need for collaboration with growers and researchers was critical for translating science in to practice, he added.

“As scientists and researchers, it is important we remain one step ahead of the sector in identifying problems and can create approaches to address these challenges. We have a pretty unique relationship where we trust each other, and we complement each other.

“Our skills base is largely complementary but too often scientists are guilty of working in silos, and there is a lack of joining up the dots through practice. Through translational science you can begin to understand technical problems and come up with practical solutions.”

Nuanced approach

More farmers were taking a nuanced approach to crop protection, said Mr Reid. “It is important moving forward that we listen to the science and look at how we can take more of an integrated approach to building our resilience,” he said.

“We have taken a belt and braces approach to protecting our crops, regardless of the consequences and now we are seeing that aphids are becoming more resistant to pyrethroids and the few products we have left are disappearing. ”

No silver bullet

“There is no silver bullet, but thorough some of the work we have been doing in our trials, we have been able to demonstrate scalable, practical techniques which could be more
widely adopted by the seed potato industry.”

Ewan Pate, who is vice-president of the RHASS initiative, said times were changing. For many years, the answer to problems like aphid resistance to insecticides involved chemistry. Now the answer was more likely to be biological or mechanical.

“It is scientific nonetheless and this interesting work at Milton of Mathers fits in very well with the 2023 RHASS Presidential Initiative, which highlights the science behind food and drink production.”