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How One Plant Breeder Innovates to Tackle Potato’s Biggest Challenge

Global Food for Thought by Dave Douches
Michigan State University
A man checks on young plants in a greenhouse

This Earth Day, one plant breeder reflects on the food security promise of innovative biotechnology and how it has been misunderstood.

Earth Day is always a reminder of why I became a plant breeder. On the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, as a fifth-grader at A.P. Morris Elementary school in Hillside, NJ, we learned the day was established to acknowledge our earth and focus on ways to protect it. In celebration, our class contribution was planting forsythia bushes. I still remember the way the soil felt in my hands, it was an event that imprinted on me.

From that first Earth Day, it has been my passion to create plants that will help feed people and keep our earth healthy. For over three decades, this passion has led my career on a quest to breed better potatoes. The theme of Earth Day 2021 is Restore Our Earth, which in today’s world takes on many different meanings. For me, it provides an opportunity to reflect on the evolution of potato breeding.

A boy in his garden holds tomatoes
David Douches

Dave’s first garden at his family home in suburban New Jersey in 1970. 

Potatoes can play a central role to achieve food security.

Potatoes are an essential crop that feed many people around the world and can play an integral role in the goal to achieve global food security. Many people don’t realize the nutritional value of potatoes; a potato has more potassium than a banana. They contain no fat, sodium or cholesterol. They come in all shapes, sizes, textures and colors. They’re incredibly versatile in recipes and they produce more nutritious food, more quickly on less land and in harsher climates than any other major crop. 

My potato breeding program resides at a US land-grant university where we are challenged to solve agricultural problems and share them for the benefit of mankind.  In potato breeding, this means the ongoing pursuit of better and more efficient traits. For potatoes, which have the infamous notoriety of the Irish potato famine, disease resistance has always been a top target trait. There are several crippling potato diseases, but the one attributed to the great famine; the one that still today over 150 years later potato breeders from around the world work to develop a sustainable solution to, is late blight disease.   

I saw the effects of potato late blight firsthand in North America in the mid-1990s.  We experienced large scale damage to fields and potato storages by new strains of the disease. Plant breeders drew upon all known resources using conventional techniques to accelerate efforts to breed late blight-resistant varieties.  We knew that we could identify cultivated potato varieties with some resistance.  We also knew that the wild species have strong resistance to late blight and the resistance genes are dispersed among the species.  However, breeding with these species would take many decades to combine a set of resistance genes in a new potato variety. In the meantime, leaving decades of disease management solely on chemical and synthetic fungicide use.  

Late blight is a crop destroyer with an estimated $6.7 billion annually in global yield losses and control costs according to the USDA. These fungicides can impact the health of people and our earth. In the fight against late blight, we are not Restoring Our Earth in fact, quite the opposite. We must find better solutions. 

Biotechnology's emergence raised questions for traditional plant breeders.

Also advancing in the 1990s was biotechnology. Biotech crops were a new innovation, and the science offered a new tool for breeders. The technology provided the potential to clone resistance genes from the wild species, combine them in successful varieties and provide natural protection from late blight decades before conventional breeding could provide. As a breeder, I needed to ask myself, what is my role with this emerging technology?  Do I explore all tools available to solve a great challenge? How could I tell farmers that I was making my best effort to solve their problems if I ignored the science of biotechnology? I knew that only through further research could scientists be able to assess the risks and the benefits of the technology. I decided, that to give my best effort, I must explore a biotech approach along with the more conventional approaches.  

Where has this dual path led me?  Through conventional breeding I have released a few varieties with some late blight resistance, but there are concerns about the durability of the resistance.  We are now working to combine resistance genes from a set of wild species and estimate we are at least a decade away from breeding these genes into a successful variety.   

Meanwhile, biotechnology tools have advanced. Potato breeders and biotechnologists are working together on sustainable solutions in the pursuit of better and more efficient traits.  We have been successful in combining three late blight resistance genes from wild potato species into potato varieties popular in the U.S. and countries in Asia and Africa.  These genetically modified potatoes provide strong and durable resistance to late blight reducing reliance on fungicides which often are not available, costly, or counterfeit in developing countries.  

The benefits of these new potatoes are many. It is estimated that current chemical fungicide spraying used to control late blight will be reduced by up to 90 percent. This dramatically reduces farmers and their families' direct contact with synthetic chemicals which are often applied without personal protective equipment and leave residue in the soil and on the potatoes. Less fungicide equals less synthetic chemical exposure to farmers, consumers, and the environment. These lower input costs from the reduction of chemical fungicides are estimated to save Bangladeshi farmers 25-28 percent of annual production costs. These savings can provide farming families more available income which can be used for education, health care, and general economic choices. I believe these are all steps in the right direction for Restoring our Earth

One of the most misunderstood technologies of all time.

Controversy has shadowed genetically modified products since their inception. Many suggest the technology’s early pioneers did not provide transparent fact-based data to consumers through open communication channels. Perhaps the competitive private sector environment bears some responsibility. Regardless of the reasons, plant biotechnology may be one of the most misunderstood technologies of all time.  

I believe the benefits of biotechnology will be felt most by low- and middle-income countries seeking food security for their growing populations. The late blight-resistant potato and other GM crops aid yield stability, which is critical to achieving a resilient food supply.  

I also believe the technology has been well tested and is safe. In 1982, the FDA approved the first consumer GMO product, human insulin to treat diabetes. It would take another 12 years before the first GMO food, a tomato would be approved for sale by the FDA. As we near the fortieth anniversary of biotechnology, I feel confident that scientists, like myself, have done their due diligence, designed and executed decades of unbiased research which all indicates GMO food crops are as safe as traditionally bred crops.  

As humans, we all want healthy, nutritious, sustainable food crops that are safe and environmentally friendly.  As a plant breeder, I want the same and believe we can achieve this using a combination of innovative tools developed from the past, the present, and our future.  This includes biotechnology. We are all inundated with ‘information overload’ and often defer to our personal influencer group to help shape our attitudes and opinions. This Earth Day when you consider how you can Restore our Earth, I urge you to seek out the facts on biotechnology and view the science through an unbiased lens.  

We’re all in this together, we have one earth to share and it’s everyone’s responsibility to understand how to best take care of it.

About the Author
Dave Douches
Director, Plant Breeding Genetics and Biotechnology Graduate Program, Michigan State University
Dave Douches is Director of Plant Breeding Genetics and Biotechnology Graduate Program in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. He is also the Project Director of the Feed the Future Biotechnology Potato Partnership working in Bangladesh and Indonesia.