Potato blight is a disease caused by a fungus which targets potatoes both in the field and in storage. It can destroy an entire crop of potatoes within one or two weeks, and it can survive year after year in the tubers of infected potatoes, which release millions of new spores when the next rainy season comes around.
Potato blight has devastated potato crops for hundreds of years. In 2007, 70% of India’s potato crop and 50% of Bangladesh’s crop were destroyed. This blight was also responsible for the Irish potato famine, which killed millions of farmers in the mid 19th century.
To combat this disease, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison worked to isolate a blight-resistant gene in a wild relative of the potato. They then partnered with an Indian organization to insert this gene into potato cultivars grown across South Asia. Other collaborators on the project included the US Agency for International Development, Cornell University, India’s Central Potato Research Institute and the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute.
As highlighted in the 2009 Better World Report, a recent round of field trials has proven successful, and the new potatoes will be licensed to both private and public enterprises soon. This means that poorer farmers can also access the seeds through local distribution channels.
A team of economists estimates that farmers will be able to double their incomes as a result of this new development. They will require less chemicals to protect their crops, and they are more likely to have excess yield which they can sell as a cash crop. The labour required to farm potatoes is also expected to decrease by 11%.