Bee on potato flower. Nature. Helping hand.

Peter Skelsey, Research Leader, Information and Computational Sciences, at the James Hutton Institute discusses technology’s role in safeguarding the future of Scotland’s potatoes.

THE importance of potatoes to Scotland’s economy is undeniable, with our seed varieties being world renowned for their premium quality.

The industry north of the border underpins UK potato production, which represents a total value of £4-5 billion across all upstream and downstream sectors.

But the long-term sustainability of this key crop continues to be threatened by a number of factors. This has been highlighted by the increasing levels of potato virus Y (PVY) and potato leaf roll virus (PLRV) being detected across Scotland, UK-wide and Europe.

Both these viral diseases are transmitted by aphids and often result in growth disorders, leaf symptoms, and most worryingly, yield losses. The diseases have been on the rise for a number of reasons, including changing weather patterns and loss of important aphicides. However, the limitation of current management strategies that include accurate predictive models, to support decision-making, continues to cloud the future sustainability of potato yields.

The development of such models could be the key to safeguarding Scotland’s potato yields in the future. Research at the James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie analysed datasets provided by SASA on the prevalence of 10 different potato viruses from 65,450 seed potato lots across Scotland between 2009 and 2022. The data-led study used mapping and models to accurately track the instances of potato viruses over the 14-year period, highlighting different patterns of spread in different areas of the country, and revealing the importance of various drivers of outbreaks. While the research concluded that eight of the 10 diseases were relatively insignificant to overall potato crop health, instances of PVY doubled, and PLRV increased eight-fold during the period.

Anonymised mapping work was performed using ArcGIS to track virus incidence rates. This provided the first evidence of spatial and spatiotemporal patterns of virus incidence at the landscape-scale and revealed striking differences in long-term disease outcomes. For example, incidence rates of PVY were consistently high in Angus for over 90% of the study period, whereas they were consistently low over 90% of the study period in production areas around Inverness. In general, the research found that growing locations further north saw lower instances of disease, while growing areas further east were at higher risk of disease breakout.

Machine learning was then used to develop a model to predict the patterns of disease, and this revealed the importance of a number of crop and environmental variables for predicting virus outbreaks, such as crop location (latitude, longitude), surrounding potato crop density, and temperature variables.

Further funding awarded for potato research

The success of the research has led to a further funding award from The Plant Health Centre to develop new national warning systems for PVY and PLRV using state-of-the-art machine learning techniques. This new project began in April and will run until January 2025.

The new project will build upon the previous research and harness machine learning technology to further unlock the power held within this rich source of data, in order to develop national-scale and localised models that can accurately predict PVY and PLRV risk. Machine learning is an ever-changing and always-learning tool, utilising increasingly diverse datasets to build a constantly refined model. The models developed at Hutton will provide decision support tools for the potato industry, giving growers the chance to adequately prepare for and minimise the negative effects of disease outbreak.

However, and arguably most consequentially, the application of these models could have a huge impact on farmers and growers by highlighting practices that encourage disease spread, leading to improving production techniques. The collaborative nature of this research and objectives are aligned with Scottish Government/SASA and stakeholders from the Scottish Aphid-Borne Virus Working Group, who are aiming to improve seed and ware potato health.

The data also has the potential to influence policymakers and future policy through the implementation of additional evidence-based control measures going forward for the benefit of the industry.

Despite a range of challenges, Scotland’s potatoes remain in a strong place. Our seed potatoes are famous for their excellent quality and while rises in disease rates have been notable, the overall disease severity levels remain very low.

However, the future is less clear for this beloved crop. By embracing technology, our industry can allay its fears and use ever-improving models to minimise the damage of disease and better implement effective farming methods that get the most out of the humble spud.

Photo: NoName_13

British Potato Review
Potato Review reports on new developments in all areas of crop production, storage, handling and packing, as well as scientific, technological and machinery innovations in the UK and overseas. We also keep readers abreast of consumer trends and legislation changes impacting on the industry.
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