- Views & Opinions
If a repeat of the Great Potato Famine was to strike or climate change so altered the Earth that water became scarce, potato seeds from the U.S. Genebank on the outskirts of Sturgeon Bay could provide the solution to a looming food crisis.
While that seems far-fetched or outlandish, it’s not.
A potato fungus about 15 years ago threatened crops around the nation. Potato seeds from Sturgeon Bay were among the tools used to avert a potato crisis. The fungus, called late blight, was a variation of the disease that caused the Great Potato Famine leading to failed crops and starvation in Ireland and parts of Europe from 1845 to 1852. It also caused mass migration to the United States.
Geneplasm, or potato seeds, from the Sturgeon Bay facility were used to develop a potato immune to the new form of late blight, said John Bamberg, a plant geneticist with the USDA/Agriculture Research Service and project leader of the U.S. Genebank. The genebank is located at the Peninsular Agricultural Research Station along State 42.
“For years we knew that there was a Mexican species that was resistant to late blight, and researchers had been working on it using seeds from our genebank,” Bamberg said.
When it was discovered that the new form of late blight was resistant to sprays used to control the fungus, researchers went into action to develop a potato variant based on the Mexican plant that was immune.
“A lot of people don’t know about the important work being done right here in Sturgeon Bay,” Bamberg said.
In the greenhouses at the U.S. Potato Genebank along State 42, lush green tendrils of potato plants reach toward the grow lights. The mature plants sprout pods the size of walnuts that yield valuable pin-head-size seeds.
These seeds hold the clues for scientists seeking answers to a wide range of topics, including higher yield, drought-resistant and pesticide-free potatoes. The world’s largest collection of potato seeds and cultivars are housed at the U.S. Potato Genebank, representing more than 5,000 potato varieties and species.
Potatoes can grow almost anywhere, need less water than most food sources and are packed with nutrients, antioxidants and minerals, Bamberg said. Researchers around the world are working to develop new potato strains to feed burgeoning populations in areas where the soil is poor and the climate is cold, hot or dry.
“In a world where the climate is changing, potatoes are an adaptable crop,” Bamberg said.
Potatoes are a super-food, Bamberg said. There are not many food sources as easy to cultivate, with the same tastiness and provide similar nutrient and mineral benefits as potatoes, he said.
Recently scientists at a facility in Peru that partners with the Sturgeon Bay site completed experiments where they successfully grew potatoes in a climate similar to Mars. In the popular 2015 movie, “The Martian,” an astronaut stranded on Mars survives by growing potatoes.
Growing potatoes in an adverse climate like Mars demonstrates the potential for potato crops, Bamberg said.
“It’s similar to climate change where what you used to grow, you can’t anymore, so maybe potatoes are the answer,” he said. “Potatoes are already an important food crop, and as the climate is changing, there’s a need to meet the new challenges in growing the crop.”
They also are the most widely grown and consumed vegetable in the nation with a value of $4.3 billion and exports totaling more than $1 billion. In the world, potatoes rank behind wheat, rice and corn in consumption.
China is quickly surpassing the United States in potato production and India is not far behind, Bamberg said.
Vast varieties of potatoes, many developed with geneplasm from Sturgeon Bay, are being cultivated across Asia, India and into Southeast Asia.
“These countries have large populations, and they need to feed their people,” he said.
The genebank’s goal is to help researchers and breeders innovate improvements in the potato crops, said Tina Wagner, a lab technician who maintains the facility’s collection.
Through genetics, the opportunities to develop potato crops with certain traits is significant. The genebank specializes in providing to researchers the seeds or germplasm that have traits a scientist requires to develop certain characteristics in a potato, Wagner said.
“We have a job to do, and one of those things is filling the orders,” Wagner said.
While the majority of the research is U.S. based, Wagner has shipped geneplasm to far flung places such as the University of Inner Mongolia.
“There’s a lot of research going on all over the world,” she said.
The Sturgeon Bay genebank was founded in 1948 by Wisconsin potato growers who saw the value in a centralized location to store seeds and house research to develop better potato stock.
Every year Bamburg and other researchers scour the sites where wild potatoes grow in the Western Hemisphere. While the wild potato originated in the region along the intersection of Peru and Bolivia, new wild varieties continue to be found in the southwestern section of the United States.
Wild potatoes, many of which are inedible, carry a treasure-trove of genetic diversity for potentially useful traits to develop new varieties of potatoes, Bamberg said.
“It’s those genes from the wild potatoes. You never know what you could find,” he said.
Potato gene research has found properties in wild potatoes that could affect cancer, diabetes and obesity. There also might be benefits in potatoes to minimize the effect of lead poisoning on children, he said.
“The research being done using geneplasm from Sturgeon Bay isn’t just about growing a better potato. It’s also about helping the world,” Bamberg said.