Ending poverty with potatoes
The potato is a crop that is difficult and slow to improve through breeding. A revolutionary new method holds great promises for global food security and the export position of the Netherlands.
The potato is worldwide one of the most important food crops, meaning that the new technology of hybrid potato has great potential to make a difference. Successful implementation will however also require a radical socio-technical change in the sector. This project investigates how hybrid potato breeding can be further developed in a responsible way, benefitting both potato producers and society at large.
Dutch start-up Solynta developed a hybrid potato in the past years that makes it possible to distribute new varieties in botanic seed form instead of as seed-potatoes. Their revolutionary new technology makes it possible to rapidly develop new potato varieties which have a higher nutritional value or which are attuned to specific local or regional needs, for example resistance to certain diseases. Due to its potential to contribute to global food security and health it was selected as one of the National Innovation Icons of the Netherlands in 2014.
However, much work remains to be done. The technology will require new seed tuber production and cropping systems. Successful implemention also requires a radical socio-technical transition in the sector, possibly with some disruptive and controversial impacts. This project pro-actively addresses such possible impacts early in the innovation process.
Socio-ethical values at stake include productivity, equity, biodiversity and sustainability. A basic assumption of the project is that the sector and society will benefit most from the innovation if it is derived from the concept of ‘commons’ – resources accessible to all members of society. The project seeks to understand, among others, how new breeding technologies may affect the subtractability and excludability of common goods.
In order to shed more light on responsible potato innovation, researchers in this project involved stakeholders from the sector, civil society, government organisations and knowledge institutions in a dialogue. The research consortium was created based on a joint initiative from Solynta and a multidisciplinary team of academic partners. Collaboration among social scientists, agricultural engineers and ethicists has contributed to a better understanding of the socio-technical dimensions of innovation in potato breeding and to the development of models for responsible and globally just innovation in agro-biotechnology.
Solynta is a very innovative company with a young and academically trained staff and with an open mind towards research, but also to socio-ethical issues related to their innovation. Several mechanisms enabled a fruitful collaboration with the research team:
- One of the researchers works for 80 per cent at the university and at Solynta for the remaining 20 per cent. This allows the researcher to be embedded in the day-to-day activities of Solynta. The company in turn profits from the fact that they have a part-timer who is very well informed about new research developments.
- An academically trained agronomist from Solynta was closely involved in designing and planning the scientific experiments.
- Solynta also facilitates MSc students working on the project, fostering further exchange between the company and the university.
The researchers have extensively mapped and described the potato sector, including the process from breeding until processing and accompanying material flows. This creates a solid base for scenario studies on future change, as it provides insight into how visions about the future are grounded in the current potato system. Among others, future research will look into the impact of hybrid potato breeding on potato multiplication and growing systems and the potato value chain.
The researchers have furthermore developed practical knowledge on the use and vulnerability of true potato seed under farmer’s conditions. Solynta has gained insight in the uniformity of their material under practical agronomic conditions, but has also learned about the performance of experimental hybrids even under relatively harsh conditions. In this way knowledge is generated on the resilience of these hybrids. The research carried out allows Solynta to optimise all phases of the production of seedlings and seed tubers and to evaluate the hybrid germplasm for productivity and quality.
Edelenbosch, R. en G. Munnichs (2020). De aardappel heeft de toekomst – Drie scenario's over de hybride aardappel en de wereldvoedselvoorziening. Den Haag: Rathenau Instituut
breeding, food security, common goods, food crops, food crops, crop improvement, cropping systems, start-ups, seed potatoes, nutrition value, plant disease
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