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New Partnership Helps Potato Farmers Fight Late Blight

Akhter Hossain knows how to work the land. He also knows his family’s future relies on the fields he cultivates. He wakes up each day and glances at the Bangladesh sky, using the weather to guide his daily chores. Hossain contemplates spraying fungicide again to protect his potato crops from late blight, a plant disease that often strikes potatoes and is one of the biggest hurdles to a successful growing season. He has already sprayed his fields twice this week. His fungicide supply is low, but he knows that without the spray his entire crop could be ruined.

Bangladesh’s agriculture sector is mainly comprised of smallholder farmers, like Hossain, who farm on plots smaller than 1.5 acres. Managing harvest loss is crucial for these farmers, and late blight is a serious contributor to their losses. The disease, responsible for the historic Irish potato famine, is a problem for potato growers across the globe. Currently, their only line of defense against the disease is heavy fungicide use.

Hossain sees hope, though, in a Feed the Future partnership that recently launched in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. The partnership aims to battle late blight head-on through the introduction of a disease-resistant potato. It is a collaborative effort between Michigan State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Idaho, the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute and the J.R. Simplot Company, an American industry leader in food technologies based in Boise, Idaho.

The partnership’s focus is on the entire plant ecosystem, from DNA to soil health and how it all impacts the products people eat around the globe. The J.R. Simplot Company has been involved in many innovations around potatoes – from the first dehydrated potatoes in the 1940s to the first frozen french fries in the 1960s to genetically engineered potatoes in the U.S. marketplace today. By combining university-backed research and industry-leading technological advancements, the Feed the Future Biotechnology Potato Partnership is hopeful that they will be able to provide farmers like Hossain with a potato that can withstand the challenges they face.

To help with the potato’s introduction, the partnership will work with local governmental partners on field and greenhouse trials to establish good standard operating practices. It will also assist with regulatory activities to ensure the potato meets biosafety standards and can obtain regulatory approvals.

For farmers across Bangladesh – Hossain included – the resistant potato variety cannot come fast enough. They’ve seen firsthand how BT eggplant, a pest-resistant variety introduced in Bangladesh two years ago, has improved the lives of their neighbors. A late blight resistant potato could mean a 25 percent savings in fungicide costs alone, making a dramatic impact in the daily life of farmers’ families – and achieving the partnership’s goal.

The Feed the Future Biotechnology Partnership works to make improved potato varieties available to smallholder farmers in Bangladesh and Indonesia. The partnership includes Michigan State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Idaho and the Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Company, along with in-country partners in both Bangladesh and Indonesia.

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