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Science Week 2016: Crisp sandwich or bag of chips?
16 November 2016

Many Irish people are obsessed with the humble potato and understandably so. Ireland has the perfect climate for growing potatoes. Unfortunately, it also has the perfect climate for breeding potato late blight, which is the number one disease that threatens potato crops.

Met Éireann issues 'blight warnings' when weather conditions that are suitable to the growth and spread of blight are expected. These blight periods are defined by the 'Irish Potato Blight Rules', which were derived by Dr Austin Bourke in the 1950s. In the sixty-odd years since these rules were developed, however, potato varieties as well as the blight pathogen have changed significantly. So the question arises; How valid are these blight forecast rules today?

Researchers from Teagasc and Maynooth University are attempting to answer this question. Their aim is to evaluate the current Irish potato blight rules and if appropriate, derive new blight forecast rules to better reflect today's crops and climate. Verifying any new blight prediction model will be tricky. Nowadays most large potato farmers spray irrespective of conditions to ensure protection, (although many spray more intensely when a blight warning is in effect), so there are very few current blight observations that could be used to measure the accuracy of a newly-developed blight forecast model.

So what can be done? As well as control plot experiments, help might lie in the past. Between the 1950s and the 1990s Met Éireann kept records of late blight outbreaks around the country. These detailed observations were made by farmers and contain information like the date of blight outbreak, potato variety and location. These historic blight observations may help in developing modern potato blight forecast models for Ireland.

This is yet another example of how the efforts of our past are helping to improve the wellbeing of our future So whether you prefer a crisp sandwich or a bag of chips, you can be assured that Irish scientists, working together with the wider agricultural community, are continuing to build on and improve Irish research into our much-loved spud!

For further information contact Keith Lambkin (Keith dot Lambkin AT met dot ie).


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