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Breakthrough in organic control of potato pests

Posted 30 April 2008

It’s the International Year of the Potato and here at Harper Adams University College a team of researchers have made a breakthrough in keeping potato crops healthy, by proving a naturally occurring fungus can be used to fight one of potato farmers’ biggest enemies. 
  

Increased use of this natural method of pest control could reduce the use of chemical pesticides in potato production and boost the availability of organic potatoes in the UK market.


A study by John Tobin, who was this month awarded a Doctorate for the research at Harper Adams University College, in Shropshire, tested the use of the fungus Pochonia chlamydosporia as a biological control agent against potato cyst nematodes (PCN). PCN damage the roots of potato crops and reduce tuber yield and quality. The research was undertaken in collaboration with BioNem Ltd.


Dr Tobin, from Tipperary, Ireland, said: “The increasing proliferation of PCN in the UK represents a major threat to potato production. It has been estimated that 64 per cent of potato fields are infested with the pest”.
   “The control of PCN has relied largely on the use of nematicides. Due to concern for their effects  on the environment their use has been restricted and the range of compounds has been reduced to four currently. As a result alternative methods for controlling PCN are being developed.”


Previous work at Harper Adams University College had demonstrated the potential of P. chlamydosporia as a biological control agent. The fungus used occurs naturally as a parasite of PCN in soil and originated in East Anglia. Dr Tobin was then appointed to undertake a three-year study to determine the potential of P. chlamydosporia under field conditions in commercial potato crops.


His work took place in dedicated research facilities set up at the Crop and Environment Research Centre, at Harper Adams.  The fungus was grown on rice grains and applied around the potato tuber at planting. Over the course of the study, from field experiments in which the fungus was compared with the nematicide fosthiazate, significant reductions in PCN multiplication were observed when compared with untreated plots.


The fungus proved as effective in reducing PCN multiplication as the nematicide. Dr Tobin concluded: “The reason for using this fungus is to reduce the number of nematodes returned to the soil that will then be able to damage the farmer`s next crop. This will then reduce potential yield loss, and the need for a nematicide, in the next crop. It will help provide long term control of PCN  when used with other management strategies as part of an integrated approach.


“P. chlamydosporia has the potential to be an effective biological control agent under UK field conditions. This is the first study of its kind to demonstrate this”
 The study revealed a number of benefits of using the P. chlamydosporia fungus, including potential long-term reduced use of nematicides, improved sustainability of the UK potato industry and increased output of organic potatoes to meet the rising demand in the UK. 

Now CERC just needs the right backing to develop the biological control agent for use on commercial farms. Dr David Crump, Managing Director of BioNem Ltd, a company that specialises in natural effective nematode control, has been working with Harper Adams for a number of years. He said: “Growers need a biological control agent which is cost effective and easy to apply. With a relatively small amount of funding, we should be able to get a commercial product out to growers within  three to four years from now.”

Dr Pat Haydock,  Leader of the Nematology and Entomology Group at CERC, adds: “Results of the field experiments have just been published in the international peer reviewed journal Biological Control. We have proved it works and now we are seeking industrial collaboration to develop it as a commercial  product. ”

  Following this successful study, Dr Haydock and his Harper Adams colleague Dr Simon Edwards have been awarded two out of only four studentships funded by the Home Grown Cereals Authority this year. They have both been awarded £37,500 to fund PhD programmes on the “integrated management of cyst nematodes in oilseed rape” and “fusarium langsethaie infection of cereals”. The studentships will begin in October 2008.

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