Statistically, every German eats 60 kilograms of potatoes a year, it is one of the most important crops of humanity. But the tuber is sensitive to changes in the climate. Researchers are therefore trying to find a variety that is as resistant as possible.
It is a simple recipe of historic importance. “This is how you can make salad from this: take these bacaras or papas, clean and soft-boiled, cut them into slices, add oil, vinegar, pepper, salt or sugar and enjoy.” What Abbot Kaspar Plautz from the Benedictine monastery in Seitenstetten in Austria recommended 400 years ago is considered the first well-known recipe for potato salad. It appears in a 104-page book about a fictional journey the abbot made with the discoverer Christopher Columbus.
“The book is likely to have been widely used,” says Father Benedikt Resch. The potato, originally from the Andes (called “papa” in South America), which came to Europe with the discovery of the New World, did not help to achieve an immediate breakthrough. That took a few more generations.
Today, alongside wheat, rice and maize, the potato is one of the most important crops for mankind – but climate change is also affecting their yields. “Above all, the plant has problems with the high temperatures during the night,” says plant biologist Markus Teige from the University of Vienna. And too much water in the field after heavy rain lets the nightshade plant die off within a few days.
That is why Teige has been coordinating a project funded by the EU with five million euros for a year, which aims to find a particularly stress-resistant tuber. In the past, when breeding potato varieties, the focus was more on yield than resistance to environmental influences, says Teige. The researchers’ approach: They want to understand in detail why some strains deal better with stress than others. Especially with the genetically very complex potato, this is like looking for a needle in a haystack. “And we don’t even know the needle,” says Teige.
Detective work in the laboratory
The scientists take a close look at varieties such as Désirée, Agata, Hansa, Henrietta, Gloria and Erika in the field test and in the greenhouse. “Experience has shown that Henrietta and Erika are more tolerant of environmental stress, but we don’t yet know why,” says the plant biologist. A survey of farmers, a large majority of whom complain of crop failures due to drought, also shows that the problem is pressing. “In the last few years it has become critical not only in southern Europe, but also in the north, for example in Lower Saxony or Brandenburg without irrigation,” says the researcher.
Classical breeding will follow the detective work in the laboratory, where we are looking for gene segments that trigger beneficial plant properties. “We then look for the same sections in the existing gene pools and cross the varieties,” says Austria’s only full-time potato breeder, Susanne Kirchmaier from the Lower Austrian Saatbaugenossenschaft (NÖS). Features such as low evaporation from the foliage or a larger root system that would cope better with long periods of drought would be important. The selection of available varieties is huge. In Europe alone there are 1,000 of them, of which only a handful have made it onto the market, says Kirchmaier.
Yellow-fleshed or red-skinned?
In any case, the demand, at least from retailers, is still very much shaped by the appearance, says the expert. In Austria and Bavaria, the salad potatoes have to be slim, waxy, with yellowish flesh. In Hungary and Russia, red-skinned potatoes are preferred. The actual field trial with sample varieties is expected to be in 2023, said Kirchmaier. The specialist’s favorite is currently the Valdivia variety, which can cope very well with drought and has an above-average yield under these conditions. “It has recently been awarded the ‘Goldener Erdapfel’ several times in Austria, but it hardly plays a role in Europe,” says Kirchmaier.
For Abbot Plautz, the triumphant advance of the potato was still difficult to imagine, especially on German plates – statistically every German eats almost 60 kilograms a year. In the 17th century, the still exotic tuber, whose aboveground components are so poisonous that they can be deadly, first enriched monastery and herb gardens. But the potential has already been recognized. “Potato salad is incredibly filling,” says Resch, who lives in Seitenstetten with 25 other monks.
Plautz wrote in 1621: “Or if you want to cure lean people or tuberculosis addicts or make them fat, cook these papas, cleaned, with the meat of capons, chickens or mutton. The drink and broth made from it provide a very digestible and wholesome food.”