Climate change does not spare Egyptian farmers and imposes itself in various forms, such as the disruption of the length of the season or the size of crops. More severely, climate change can manifest itself in rising sea levels and increased salinity in irrigation water and soil.
Rising salinity levels are forcing farmers in many areas to switch to other crops, as the land has become less receptive to their usual crops. Jeroen Bakker, Head of Breeding Fresh Markets at HZPC, The Dutch potato breeder, has been working on this issue for years in the potato sector, offering growers new potato varieties with "proven high tolerance to salinity."
The potato sector is particularly concerned about rising salinity in Egypt, as it is produced in the most affected areas, in addition to its status as a "strategic crop" in the government's plans to reclaim desert land. Jeroen says: "We see that the Egyptian government is reclaiming new fields in the desert which will be irrigated from wells sometimes faced with mixed water qualities, while there is no rain to wash away the salt, as in many parts of Europe. The Wadi El Natroun region has a long history of salinity, as the village's name suggests. Other areas of Egypt where salinity is a problem are El-Fajoem and especially the north, near the Mediterranean Sea. We are also seeing increasing problems in southern Spain, Italy, Pakistan, Namibia, and the Netherlands.
"To meet a pressing and growing need for salinity-tolerant potato varieties, we started introducing our Sagitta variety a few years ago," continues Jeroen, "The variety has the ability to be very stable under various agro-pedo-climatic conditions, but it also performs much better under saline conditions than other varieties. Yield and tuber size don't decrease as much under higher salinity levels as other varieties."
The worrying situation in Egypt and other parts of the world calls for the continued development of tolerant varieties, according to the breeder. "Annually, we start our breeding program with hundreds of thousands of seedlings resulting in a few superior variety candidates after 10 years of testing and selecting. Over the last decade, we have seen in our varieties a significant increase in marketable yield combined with several resistances to diseases and improved quality characteristics. This new variety-candidates are also tested under various salinity levels in trial fields in Egypt and a new location in Spain. We are focusing on five different markets: Retail Fresh, Traditional Fresh, Crisps, Fries, and Flakes and the urge for robust and resistant varieties is stronger than ever. Our vision: "We drive the development of responsible food for the world population", shows that we are strongly focusing on the sustainable production of potatoes worldwide."
Asked how soon the new varieties can be deployed commercially, Jeroen replied, "Our seed potato production is based on our long-term sales forecast. We have included the recent developments of increasing salinity in our seed production plan and strive to supply the demand in the coming years. There is not only the variety Sagitta, we are just starting to introduce a brand new variety (2890) that shows very high yields, a long tuber shape, and a low nitrogen need. Above all, it is one of the best-performing potato varieties under a medium high level of salinity stress in both the Spring as well in the Winter season."