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Researchers are investigating ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the UK potato sector – helping to ensure an environmentally friendly future for the... Three-year plan to make potatoes sustainable

Researchers are investigating ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the UK potato sector – helping to ensure an environmentally friendly future for the crop.

Funding by Innovate UK, the three-year project is exploring innovative approaches to revitalising soil organic matter. It is also seeking ways to tackle the challenge of greenhouse gas emissions – especially carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.

Farming partners

Led by Dyson Farming, the project brings together a consortium of key industry, academic and farming partners – including Bangor University, Emerald Research, the James Hutton Institute and Light Science Technologies.

Called Transformative Reduced Inputs in Potatoes (TRIP), the goal is to reduce fertiliser and agro-chemical usage while continuing to produce crops that meet commercial quality and tonnage requirements.

Richard Meredith, head of Dyson Farming Research, said: “A more regenerative approach to potato production will help us to maintain the efforts we take to improve our soils while also potentially reducing our production costs.”

As well as Dyson Farming, other farming partners involved in the three-year project – which includes a series of farm trials – are SDF Agriculture, FG Pryor and Son, Colwith Farm Potatoes and CP Richards & Son.

Tackling emissions

The carbon footprint of conventional potato production current comprises: fertilisers (55%, including nitrous oxide from nitrogen fertiliser), storage energy (29%), seed (9%) and transport (5%).

Researchers are focusing their efforts on tackling the 55% of greenhouse gas emissions that come from soil applied nitrogen, inefficient use of, and pollution from, phosphates and the elimination of the need for soil or foliar fungicides.

Emerald Research managing director Simon Fox said he believed substantial reductions in emissions could be achieved through the development of foliar applied nutrients and an array of innovative natural bioactive products.

“We believe that this project has the ability to fundamentally change the soil tillage and input regimes used to produce potatoes in the UK,” said Mr Fox.

“We are excited about the very real potential not only to reduce the carbon footprint of UK potato production, but to do so in ways that are practical and economically rewarding for the farmer.”

Input reductions

Results from the first TRIP field trials will be published at this month’s British Potato event, held on 22-23 November at the Great Yorkshire Showground, Harrogate. They have assessed the impact of various input reductions.

Trials included different approaches to base nutrition provided by farmyard manure, green waste and a reduction in nitrogen of 50%; different fungicides and biological products; foliar nutrition applications; and blight programme strategies.

Visitors to the British Potato event will be asked whether they believe potatoes can be grown regeneratively on a commercial basis. Alongside “yes” and “no” answers, a third response could see potatoes grown as part of a “regenerative rotation”.

Further field trials will assess different nutrient recommendations and product formulations. These will be evaluated against standard farming programmes and a number of different nitrogen and phosphate regimes.

Experts focus on range of low-carbon options

New breeds of disease resistant potatoes, soil mulches and nutrients could all help reduce the crop’s carbon footprint.

“Many farmers are seeking ways of producing their crops more sustainably,”  says Christine Jones, of Dyson Farming. “But the particular requirements for growing a potato crop can make it a challenge to incorporate potatoes into a sustainable rotation.”

Trial results are expected to offer potato growers a range of methods to reduce crop inputs, says Dr Jones. This is likely to include different sources of crop nutrition, alongside alternative methods of controlling pests and diseases.

The project will also test on-farm testing of a new greenhouse gas measurement sensor, says Dave Chadwick, of the School of Environmental and Natural Sciences at Bangor University.

“There is an urgent need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including agriculture. This Innovate UK project will allow us to assess the potential of these novel strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions whilst maintaining potato yields.

“The project has been designed to compare both greenhouse gas emissions and crop yields from conventional and novel production methods, in replicated plot-scale experiments and at the field-scale on commercial farms.”