Research body faces uncertain future

Shortfall in take-up of blight-resistant potato variety leaves Sarvari Research Trust in jeopardy.

Failure to gain widespread acceptance of its conventionally bred blight-resistant potato varieties is putting the future of a Welsh research establishment in jeopardy.

"We have spent ten years getting to this point, and now we are stuck," said Sarvari Research Trust director of research Dr David Shaw.

"We have struggled to get accepted - no one will grow our varieties on a large scale because the supermarkets don't want them. We have bred primarily for blight resistance, but they don't value that. They say: 'Can you match our favourite varieties?' Ours are not as uniform and have a less shiny finish. We have been conditioned into thinking that they have to be beautiful."

The trust maintains a presence in the amateur market, he added. "Gardeners and allotment keepers know they're bombproof - we sell into those markets as well as to farm shops and box schemes. But because they aren't Maris Piper or Desiree they are shunned by the retailers. They want blight-resistant versions of those varieties, which is what is now being bred by GM."

The trust also exports seed potatoes to niche markets such as St Helena, he explained. "But there are no economies of scale. We have plans to ramp things up but can't do that on our own. We don't want to give up now."

The irony is that growers are now being pressed to grow more sustainably, Shaw added. "For most farmers, blight isn't a problem as they will spray every week from emergence to harvest, or even every four days. You wouldn't dare not - there's too much at risk. But it can account for 10-20 per cent of the cost of the crop."

Meanwhile, the wet weather has led to "probably the worst year for blight since the Irish potato famine", he said. "Yet one of our growers on the Llyn peninsula has a gorgeous crop right now, even while all his neighbours have suffered."

Sarvari Research Trust Field-grown tomatoes resistant to blight

The Sarvari Research Trust is also working with Pro-Veg Seeds to develop blight-resistant tomatoes that could be field-grown in the UK.

"You can't beat the flavour of field-grown," said director of research Dr David Shaw. "Even this year we have had field-grown tomatoes doing okay."

The trust is working on screening existing varieties, including the results of Pro-Veg's own UK breeding programme, and is looking at growing bush-type plants on tabletops in polytunnels in a similar manner to strawberries. A European grant has funded a PhD student to manage the trials. But the work is still at a very early stage.

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