Monthly Archives: October 2020

For the love of the spud in spite of its beauty spots

This article was written by Erik Alexandersson, Researcher at the Department of Plant Protection Biology, SLU

Small holder farmers together with Lerato Matsaunyane at ARC in Randfontein. Photo: Flip Steyn.

Today, 26 October, is the offical potato day here in Sweden and a good opportunity to look closer at this quite nutritional crop. The potato is grown and eaten all over the world and production is on the rise in many low income countries – primarily in Africa. The versatility and adaptability of this beloved spud is the key to it´s wide spread. However, diseases and drought due to changed climate present threats to yields in the future.

Potatoes have long been essential for Western cuisine. They are loved in many forms. Why not boiled together with meat and sauce, as fries accompanying that novel non-meat burger or simply as crisps, which can be seen as the centrepiece of cosy television time with the family. Worldwide potato is today the third most consumed crop.

The potato retains its popularity in spite the rise of the fast-boiling pasta and popularity of low-carb diets. Consumption in the industrialised world have been stable the last 20 years even if it now and again ends up in the dietary cold box.

In low-income countries, potato production is still on the rise though. In 2008, the total production even passed that of the industrialised world. Not the least in sub-Saharan Africa where incidence of malnutrition are among the highest in the world, and sadly more than 15% of the total population still lacks sufficient food.

In fact, its cropping area and production have increased more than those of any other food crop in Africa (1). Today, it is maybe foremost an important cash crop for small-scale farmers, but since the areal and demand are rising we can predict that it will have a greater importance to future food security in the region.

Potato has a fantastic ability to adapt and yield in different climate conditions. Originating from the Andes the potato is grown on all continents except Antarctica. Its ability to produce well in so many different environments is an important part of its success. Still many diseases affects the production. In temperate regions late blight is considered as one of the most dreaded plant diseases. Extensive research has gone into combating late blight and today we have both conventional bred and genetically modified potatoes carrying additional resistance genes with high level of resistance as well as efficient pesticides.

Potato trials in Roodeplaat. Photo: Flip Steyn

However, in an African perspective, other diseases such as early blight, which thrives in warmer climates and insect pests that destroy harvested tubers can cause larger problems. The underlying mechanisms of several other diseases than late blight are less studied and lesser known. Unfortunately, efficient resistance factors are unknown and remain to be discovered for use in breeding programmes. For early blight, there is also an increased problem with pesticide resistance.

For the small-scale farmers it is not easy to afford to protect their potato crop or take the right measures. One powerful way to convert research into practice are field demonstrations for farmers, advisers and policy makers, something we tried out with our colleagues Lerato Matsaunyane at the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, South Africa and Tewodros Mulugeta at Kotebe Metropolitan University in Ethiopia.

Furthermore, for the farmers in Southern Africa, unpredictable rains have caused big problems for agriculture. In this context, potato will have a challenge as it is sensitive to drought, also to shorter micro-droughts and clearer focus on research on drought tolerant varieties is needed. Unfortunately, climate change is expected to have a very large impact on agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa. The need for a future drought tolerant potato is evident.

Luckily, the International Potato Center and other research institutes are doing multifaceted research to provide a disease free and drought tolerant potato suitable for different needs in African agriculture.

But, today is the official potato day here in Sweden, so let us just for a moment look away from these beauty spots of this loved spud. Did you for example know that the nutritional value of potato is not that bad! Tubers harbours fibre and important nutrients such as vitamin C, tocopherols and carotenoids! And with the right cultivar under the right conditions it can be one of the most high-yielding crops! With a production of 15, 40 or even 60 tonnes per hectare it can for sure feed many hungry stomachs.

References

(1) Ortiz, O., & Mares, V. (2017). The historical, social, and economic importance of the potato crop. In The Potato Genome (pp. 1-10). Springer, Cham

Why do we collaborate?

The next chapter of SLU – Vietnam collaborations

Photo: Agnes Bondesson, SLU

Looking back

More than 35 years ago, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences’ (SLU) initiated contact with Vietnamese universities with support from Sida/SAREC. The early research capacity development programmes aimed to strengthen individual and institutional research capacity in Vietnamese priority areas. The programmes have been part of the development agenda to reduce poverty and contribute to the socio-economic development of Vietnam. Several departments and faculties at SLU have over the years been involved in the collaborations. Some of these projects have also involved Swedish MSc and PhD students who have been able to conduct fieldwork in Vietnam. Many programmes have been large long-term projects involving several universities and research institutes in Vietnam and resulting in a large number of Vietnamese MSc and PhD graduates.

SLU Global conducted a detailed evaluation report to increase learning from experiences and to feed into our present and future international collaborations. Focus of the evaluation was on initiatives within the sectors relevant to agriculture, rural development, and forestry. The time scope for the study was 1977-2018. Collaborations result in both long-listed research projects and education. Both key activities provided capacity development at institutional level/national level as well as individuals, and Vietnamese society.

Looking forward into future

1 October 2020, SLU global opened up a new chapter of collaborations by inviting SLU and Vietnamese researchers to an online workshop aiming to be a discussion forum for researchers, teachers and others to explore opportunities and interest in future collaborations based on past experiences between SLU and Vietnam. The purpose with this workshop was to create new possible networks and exchange knowledge between researchers, teachers and others at SLU and in Vietnam. More than 55 researchers were participating in small group discussions to potential future collaborations and what tools we need to make the collaborations possible. Tools, as we recognised from our experiences were not only required research competent, but also administrative supports from the universities. SLU and Uppsala University has joint representative office in Hanoi, providing supportive services connecting researchers and students, including alumni, between the two countries. Moreover, the workshop also made visible financial opportunities from Vietnam, Sweden and the EU.

A small but important step to the future is to allow researchers/teachers between the two countries to discuss their common interests as well as challenges. During the workshop, researchers were divided into 8 groups according to research interests. Common topics discussed during this workshop are varies including, land transformation, climate change, transformation from rice to horticulture, small scale forestry, pest control, agri-business, remote sensing in forest research, payment for forest environmental forestry scheme (PES), animal health, agroforestry etc. Moreover, the workshop group discussions continued to discuss the Joint teacher student exchanges and the access to new online courses. One concrete example is the course on bioinformatics, which is being developed to be given fully digitally by SLU. Voicing from the discussion, researchers from both countries would like to see the expansion of the collaboration beyond Sweden-Vietnam, but South East Asia as target region.

One of the main challenges to continue the engagement is the limitation of funding, considering Vietnam is no longer a priority for international development. Researchers can overcome this challenge by searching new financial opportunities, such as EU and the private sector, as well as focusing on early career development for researchers from low and low-middle income countries. Decreasing of financial support does not stop the ‘Will to Collaborate’. With Covid-19 in the background, online communication channels and platforms will continue to increase, which benefits a long term conversation between researchers and teachers between the two countries.

This blog post was written by Alin Kadfak, Communications Coordinator, SIANI