Potato growers have been warned against importing seed from the Netherlands where a deadly new disease is decimating crops. Will Surman investigates.
Dutch growers discovered the bacterial disease, Dickeya solani, in 2005 and by 2007 the losses and downgrading of potato crops had increased five-fold.
The disease, which acts like an aggressive form of blackleg, now costs Dutch growers €25-30 million annually and producers in Britain have been told to beware of similar consequences if they continue to import seed from the continent.
Alarm bells were ringing in Scotland this week over reports the Scottish Government had failed to communicate the scale of the problem to growers.
A Freedom of Information request from the Scottish Press and Journal revealed there were three disease outbreaks in ware crops grown in 2009 and a fourth incident in 2010.
Conservative MSP John Scott criticised the Government for ignoring the threat of disease.
A Scottish spokesman admitted it was ‘not our policy to routinely report individual outbreaks or to give details of location or companies affected’ but countered the outbreaks in question had been reported.
Gerry Saddler, an expert from Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA), said Scottish controls were among the strictest in the world, adding there was no reason for potato growers to panic.
“Our domestic seed in Scotland is free of the disease. The incidences reported have been isolated and dealt with,” he said.
However, he warned growers against imports, particularly from the Netherlands.
“If the industry brings in lots of imported seed there could be a serious problem. Growers must realise that imported seed carries a genuine plant health risk.”
If infected seed does take hold in the UK, the disease could spread rapidly.
The greatest risk of disease spread is with infected seed potatoes but the infection can be spread to other stocks by physical contact or contamination of machinery and equipment.
Mr Saddler said contaminated machinery could then spread the disease into the indigenous seed crop. “It is a real danger,” he said.
In the face of the dangers the Scottish Government has put unprecedented controls in place and urged all growers to be vigilant and take care in sourcing their seed potatoes.
The Scottish Government and the Potato Council have also recently announced a 3-year, £500,000 research project to better understand the epidemiology of the disease.