With climate change also becoming a thing on Canada’s crop lands, identifying and/or developing new potato varieties that can grow in warmer temperatures is one of the goals of the research teams of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). Potatoes originated from and still grow wild in the cooler climate of the Andes of South America, and research scientists have often mined these varieties for traits desired in North American cultivars. But what happens when the climate heats up?
Xiu-Qing Li of AAFC in Fredericton noticed that warmer summers are creating heat stress in Canadian potato crops. He began studying Canada’s current varieties to see which are the most heat-tolerant. He also hopes to identify the genes responsible for heat tolerance and to incorporate them into future varieties, either through genetic crosses or directional mutation.
“Climate change threatens the future production of potatoes, but some varieties are more heat-tolerant than others,” Li explains. “We want to continue to grow potatoes, but we need to use varieties that can tolerate heat stress.”
Li quotes Statistics Canada data that revealed a 2016 yield decrease in Ontario potatoes of 17.2 per cent compared to the 2015 season. A trend of continuous decreases could severely hamper potato production in Canada and could also pose issues of food security with the rising world population. If the entire production of potatoes worldwide experiences similar yield decline, the future of this nutritious food source could be under threat. Li’s research focuses on getting in front of what could be a potential crisis.
Growers know that developing new cultivars can take a decade or more and, with predicted increases in temperature to be as much as two degrees by the end of the century, if not sooner, plant breeders need to start working towards varieties that can take the heat immediately.