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Consumers benefit from organic potato breakthrough


Shoppers throughout Europe are enjoying a greater variety of organic potatoes at more affordable prices, according to researchers who publish an international study today.

Several varieties of organic potato, suitable for a range of national palates and cuisine, are adorning supermarket shelves across the continent for the first time.

A European study, led by Nafferton Ecological Farming Group at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, found up to ten varieties of potatoes, which can be grown without using chemical fertilisers and pesticides whilst being particularly resistant to the deadly fungal disease, blight. Most of these are newly available on supermarket shelves throughout the continent.

’Designer composts’ were created as part of the project, and were shown to increase organic potato crop yields by up to 40 per cent. New and effective organic crop management strategies have also been tried and tested.

Results of the project (called Blight-MOP), which involved 13 partners in Europe, will be presented today at a conference in Newcastle hosted by the Soil Association and the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

One of the project’s main objectives was to encourage more consumers and producers to ’go organic’ - currently just four per cent of shoppers buy organic vegetables.

Among the newly-available organic potato selection are two Scottish varieties, Eve Balfour and Lady Balfour, which have been bred by the Scottish Crop Research Institute and are on UK supermarket shelves. Other examples include a "purple" potato from Hungary.

Shoppers can spend up to twice as much on organic potatoes than other varieties. Organic farmers do not have powerful chemical fertilisers and pesticides in their armoury, meaning harvests are much smaller than conventional crops grown on similarly-sized areas of land.

Organic farmers’ main weapons against blight - which caused widespread famine in the UK in the 1840s and is extremely difficult to control - are mineral copper sprays, and even these are not popular with consumers.

Researchers found some blight-management strategies, which would allow farmers to do away with the copper sprays but not at the expense of a reduction in crop size.

Professor Carlo Leifert, leader of the Nafferton Ecological Farming Group at Newcastle University, said: "Until now it’s been hard to find varieties of potato that can be grown organically but can resist blight, and it’s taken a lot of investigation to get this far.

"From a European perspective, you can’t really find a ’one size fits all’ solution to the organic problem. For instance, a potato that’s popular with the Swiss for making dishes such as tartiflette and rosti, may not suit what the British consumer wants for baked potato, mash and chips.

"Essentially, the Blight-MOP project has ensured that organic potatoes of the future will be more widely available and of an equal, if not better, quality and closer to the price of potatoes grown using chemicals.

"Hopefully we can then encourage more consumers and farmers alike to take the healthy eating option and go organic," said Professor Leifert, adding that valuable lessons from the exercise could be transferred to other aspects of organic vegetable production.

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, said, "The results from the research are good news for farmers and consumers. Organic potato growing can be technically challenging and we hope that these blight resistant varieties will enable UK organic farmers to produce more potatoes and reduce the reliance of imports. It is encouraging that the supermarkets are recognising the challenges of growing organic potatoes and have started giving these new varieties a chance on the supermarket shelf."

Claire Jordan | alfa
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