Climate change: Are potatoes being put at risk by warmer weather?

Potato crop

Potato crop

The humble potato may struggle to grow in the UK in years to come due to climate change, researchers have warned.

Scotland’s fields grow a quarter of Britain’s potato crop.

However household favourites such as Ayrshire and Maris Piper are said to be at risk as temperatures rise.

The James Hutton Institute (JHI) at Invergowrie, just outside Dundee, is now trying to find varieties that will grow in warmer conditions.

The annual retail value of potato products across the UK is put at more than £2bn.

Prof Lesley Torrance, the JHI research organisation’s executive director of science, warned that climate change posed an “existential threat” to the potato industry.

She said there was a need to quickly develop new varieties that can cope with rising temperatures.

The institute is using an experimental farm to study how crops grow, and has a large collection of potato species from around the world.

Prof Torrance told BBC Scotland’s Landward that climate change was a major problem.

“Potatoes are a cool-climate crop,” she said. “And of course climate change predictions are that we’re going to have hotter and drier summers. So that’s a big problem.”

Prof Lesley Torrance and Cammy Wilson

Prof Lesley Torrance told the BBC’s Landward that new varieties are needed

Crop simulation research by the institute has modelled what are called plant heat stress days.

This is when temperatures reach above 25C, making crops such as potatoes change their purpose from growing to instead combating stress from heat and reducing yields.

“By 2030 there will be maybe as many as 60 heat stress days in the growing season,” Prof Torrance explained.

“That’s two months, and so that will have major impacts, mostly in the south and east of England, but Scotland is also impacted.”

Potato crop

The research is being carried out near Dundee

Among varieties being analysed are those from the Andes mountains in South America – regarded as the origin of potato cultivation.

“We are using this collection to mine for traits that will help us with things like the heat tolerance, drought tolerance, pest and disease resistance,” Prof Torrance said.

“The answer is that we can breed new varieties but we need to do that quite quickly. We want new varieties that can adapt to the warmer climate.

“We need to develop new varieties in time for the huge problems coming along the line with hotter weather and droughts which pose an existential threat to the industry.”

The interview with Prof Lesley Torrance by Cammy Wilson of Landward can be seen on BBC Scotland on Thursday at 20:30.