Several key UK retailers have pledged to sell disease resistant organic potatoes, boosting sustainability and farm resilience for producers.
Organic certification body the Soil Association developed its 'UK Robust Potato Pledge 2021' in a bid to help growers move away from potatoes that are susceptible to blight – a disease that can quickly devastate entire potato crops.
Signees to the pledge have agreed to favour organic spuds that have been bred to be blight resistant, rather than selling more well-known varieties – helping the organic potato sector transition to 100 per cent robust potato breeds over the next five years, the Soil Association said.
Waitrose, Riverford, Abel and Cole, Agrico, Sarpo, Skea Organics, RBOrganic, and Produce World have all signed up to the pledge, which was launched today (13 October) at the Organic Grower’s Alliance’s Organic Matters Horticulture Conference.
Horticultural advisor Hugh Blogg – who works in the Soil Association’s farming team supporting farmers to adopt sustainable practices – has led on securing commitments to the pledge on behalf of the Organic Growers Alliance.
He said: “It is great to see so many retailers signing up to this pledge, which we hope will help to unite supply chains in the organic potato sector. Blight is a serious problem for all potato growers, but it can be particularly difficult for organic farmers as they don’t use chemical inputs to fight off the disease. Innovative breeding programmes have had huge success at establishing varieties that are blight resistant, while still providing all the qualities that make potatoes a delicious choice for shoppers. The backing of key retailers to stock these products is an exciting next step in the journey towards a more resilient and sustainable potato sector. We hope it will provide certified organic farmers with the confidence to grow less-known varieties, as well making it easier in future for other farmers to grow potatoes without using chemicals.”
Marija Rompani, director of Ethics and Sustainability at the John Lewis Partnership, which includes Waitrose, said: “With COP26 on the horizon we’re constantly looking for ways to improve our impact on nature and biodiversity. This pledge is a great opportunity for us to help reduce our environmental impact through innovation and we hope that through this leadership, and the leadership of our producers, the rest of the industry will follow suit.”
The pledge agreement builds on research from Organic-PLUS, an EU-project which aims to reduce the use of contentious inputs in organic and non-organic agriculture. Organisations such as Organic Grower’s Alliance, English Organic Forum, Organic Research Centre, and Biodynamic Association have also pledged their support.
Phil Sumption, Organic Growers Alliance, said: “I am delighted to see the launch of the Potato Pledge, and to see the UK following in the footsteps of the highly successful potato covenant model in the Netherlands. They have seen a huge uptake of blight resistant 'robust' varieties by working across the food chain. The potential benefits to growers of higher yields and less sprays, and to the environment, are massive. There are many great blight-resistant varieties out there with good culinary properties acceptable to consumers. It is fantastic to see the sector joining together to remove the resistance to resistance.”
Coventry University’s Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) has agreed to help monitor the pledge progress, including looking at the proportion of robust varieties being used in both retail and organic acreage.
As part of the Defra-funded FOOdIVERSE project, CAWR has also set up a “Living Lab” research group to help maximise its impact in year one. This will bring key stakeholders together across both organic and non-organic potato supply chains to share information and best practice affecting the uptake of robust varieties, which will help to inform yearly targets for the pledge.
Dr Ulrich Schmutz, Associate Professor for Organic Horticulture at CAWR, said: “The Potato Pledge is a great ‘living idea’, aiming to change the UK organic potato sector within the next five years by promoting robust varieties and bringing more bio-diversity into fields and food-diversity onto plates. It is great to see the whole supply chain in the UK pulling together in this pledge, and Coventry University is proud to be asked to monitor and support the potato pledge scientifically.”