Climate change is making it harder for farmers to grow enough food to feed their families. A new potato variety called CIP-Matilde, developed by the International Potato Center (CIP) with support from the Crop Trust, is the latest example of using the wild relatives of crops to adapt our agriculture to new threats.
Potatoes are grown all around the world, and almost everywhere they are grown they are threatened by late blight, a disease that can destroy a field of plants in a matter of weeks. This disease is controlled with a wide range of agrochemicals but most farmers are not able to afford or often apply leading to high production loss.
However, farmers will soon have an option of dealing with this devastating disease as CIP prepares to release a potato variety with almost complete resistance. This new potato, called CIP-Matilde, is the product of a breeding effort that crossed wild potatoes with cultivated ones to produce commercially viable potatoes that are able to withstand late blight.
This is as a result of a long-term effort to preserve, study, and use the potato’s wild relatives in breeding supported by the Crop Trust through its Crop Wild Relatives Project, a global initiative to adapt agriculture to climate change. The project makes all its products available to others under the rules of the Plant Treaty, an international agreement to foster the conservation and sustainable use of crop diversity.
It was clear to researchers at the CIP that farmers needed a solution to late blight when they found its damage in potato fields in high altitude areas of the Andes that were once free of the disease. In mountain areas where humid conditions facilitate late blight’s spread, potato farmers have to apply fungicides four to six times per month or risk losing their crops. Scientists predict that risk will increase as climate change transforms weather conditions.
The new variety, CIP-Matilde, was named after scientist Matilde Orrillo, who pioneered CIP’s use of wild species in potato breeding in the 1980s. Liberating Peruvian potato farmers from the cost and risks of applying fungicides, CIP-Matilde is an example of the potential of using Crop Wild Relatives for breeding climate-smart varieties, an approach that could boost food production and farmer resilience.
As climate change increases the risk of crop diseases, farmers need more robust crop varieties. The hardy wild cousins of cultivated crops can come in handy for this. Crop Wild Relatives have evolved to withstand harsh conditions like extreme heat and drought and through a process called pre-breeding, scientists can transfer these useful traits into cultivated varieties. It’s a laborious process, but the results are worth it.
CIP potato breeder Thiago Mendes explains that CIP-Matilde is especially appropriate for growing conditions and consumer preferences in Peru’s Central Andes, where it will be promoted in the coming years. However, he adds, this and other shortlisted candidates could also be used as parents by breeding programs in other countries for the development of locally adapted, late-blight resistant varieties. He explains that while working toward the release of CIP-Matilde, CIP shared late blight-resistant potatoes with national partners in several African countries for use in the development of their own new varieties.
A photo of CIP-Matilda potato tubers