AHDB 'Next Generation' group studies Scottish seed industry

AHDB Potatoes’ Next Generation delegates
AHDB Potatoes’ Next Generation delegates

AHDB Potatoes’ Next Generation delegates continued their study programme of the GB potato industry with an in-depth look at the Scottish seed industry this month.

The group began their two-day tour at Scottish Government’s facilities at Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA), meeting key members of the potato and plant health teams in labs and lecture halls. The group were able to see at first hand the specialist facilities and the work SASA does to protect plant health, preserving collections of over 1000 potato varieties and ensuring provision of disease-free micro-plants to support production of GB’s high-health seed crop.

The tour encompassed visits to SASA’s pathology and virology laboratories, the stored variety collections, plus a close-up look at the advanced soil testing equipment which helps keep Scottish seed land free of Potato Cyst Nematode (PCN). The group also learnt about related AHDB Potatoes projects on Blackleg research, Scottish monitor farms, seed and export, the Independent Variety Trials (IVT) and the potato variety database.

Seed knowledge exchange continued into the evening when leading Scottish seed growers and scientists joined the group to give unique insight into their decades of experience in seed potatoes. The visitors had some fascinating stories to tell, and urged the Next Generation group to get involved in wider industry activities. Stressing how their own involvement over the years in the levy board’s campaigns and committees helped them forge ahead in business, these seasoned seed ‘ambassadors’ emphasised that this is how the Next Generation ‘envoys’ could make a real difference and how their input would be valuable for decades to come.

Seed buyers have specific requirements and need high-health tubers in particular size ranges in their chosen variety and in a suitable physiological condition. To discover more, day two of the study tour saw the group visit Dundee-based micro-propagation and mini-tuber facility, Gentech led by their facility manager Nigel Ebblewhite and Chief Executive of Cygnet Plant Breeders, Alistair Redpath.

The group saw for themselves at Gentech how micro-propagation methods have been adopted in the maintenance and storage of new cultivars and how technology has been developed so that micro-propagation and mini-tuber production are now used widely for rapid production of large quantities of virus-free, pre-basic (PB) seed.

The Scottish tour concluded with a visit to leading seed producers and exporters, Caithness Potatoes, near Perth. Stephen Hole, Sales and Logistics Manager, provided a fascinating insight into the challenges and complexities of seed production and exports. He told the group, “We work in an interesting and diverse sector which is highly dependent on knowledge and expertise. We supply a diverse range of markets and although this can make it a volatile industry at times, this is what keeps it so interesting.”

Amber Cottingham, graduate trainee at Branston Ltd and member of this year’s Next Generation group was inspired by the visits and told AHDB, “Being on the Next Generation programme has provided me with an awareness of industry challenges. By taking a holistic approach, the Next Generation programme has allowed me to gain insight on all aspects of the industry which is helping shape how I look at what I do, every day.

“Having visited key organisations in the seed sector, I realise how forward-thinking the potato industry needs to be. For instance, I learnt a great deal about the Safe Haven scheme and the emphasis put on disease prevention from the very first stages of production to ensure the best quality seed stock. The people we met are ensuring the longevity of the potato industry, not just in GB but globally.”

The group’s next visit will be to Westminster in January 2016. As young entrants to the £4.1bn potato industry, they will have the opportunity to articulate their views about the potato sector with three MP’s and gain an understanding of how potatoes fit into Great Britain’s food and farming plan.