When copper no longer helps

When copper no longer helps

The wet summer in 2021 led to losses of as much as 80 percent for potato farmers. Organic farms were hit especially hard. Even the massive use of copper was unable to save harvests in many cases. A potato shortage loomed in Switzerland, one that cannot be alleviated with additional foreign imports.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The potato is the most consumed starch plant in Switzerland. The Swiss eat around 45 kilograms of potatoes per capita each year. Yet, as the “Tribune de Genève” reports, a potato shortage is looming in Switzerland this year. In particular, lovers of Swiss organic potatoes will likely have to look for other products. This is due to the extremely wet and cold summer as well as the heavy hail storms in June and July. These took a heavy toll on potatoes. Jocelyn Bussy, Director of Bio Pack Swiss, told the “Tribune de Genève”: “On the whole, our producers estimate that their income will fall by 50 percent.”

A fifth of the harvest could only be used as animal feed

The potato losses were especially severe for organic farmers. Farmer André Gallandat grows organic potatoes on 30 hectares of his 170-hectare farm in Démoret. He gets an average yield of 25 tons of potatoes per hectare. This year, the harvest is barely half that. In addition, a large portion is classified as waste and can thus only be used as animal feed. Nearly 20 percent of his harvest this year landed in feeding troughs. At Demeter, this figure is nearly a third. Some varieties were hollowed out because there was so much water. And the few warm days that did occur led some varieties to grow quickly, causing them to crack.

Copper doesn’t help either
Cold in May, rain, hail and standing water in June and July: These were ideal conditions for the spread of potato blight. In conventional farming, fungal diseases can usually be combated using synthetic fungicides. Synthesized copper is also used frequently in organic farming as well. But it wasn’t enough this year, says André Gallandat. “It’s too little for a year like this, especially as the copper that’s applied is often washed away by subsequent rainfall.” According to the “Tribune de Genève,” Swisspatat expects substantial crop losses. The losses in conventional farming amount to 15–30 percent, while the losses in organic farming are 60–80 percent.


Fears of a potato shortage
Potato blight has led to total losses at some farms. In normal times, Switzerland is able to provide 85 percent of the potatoes it consumes. But everything is different this year. “We don’t yet have concrete figures for 2021, but we will likely be nowhere near this figure,” Christian Bucher, Director of Swisspata told the “Tribune de Genève.” There is a risk of a potato shortage. In this case, says Bucher, the industry would have to increase imports. The Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO) has already approved the import of processing potatoes. As a result, some chip packages will now simply be marked as “From Germany” instead of with the name of the Swiss farm where the potatoes were sourced.

Poor harvest year 2021

The year 2021 will leave its mark on practically all crops in the form of harvest losses and total failures. Particularly affected are viticulture and fruit growing, where severe hailstorms destroyed most of the fruit. However, added to this was waterlogging of fields and strong pressures from plant diseases. Powdery mildew and late blight were able to spread particularly well due to the damp and wet conditions. In order to protect potatoes to some extent from late blight, farmers were dependent on effective pesticides. Without these means, there would probably have been total failures in the potato harvest as well. 150 years ago, the fungal disease destroyed entire annual crops and led to terrible famines that claimed a million lives in Ireland (out of a population of 8 million at the time) and triggered mass emigration. The wet summer of 2021 would probably also have led to famine in previous generations - when no effective pesticides were available and imports were not possible. This was taking place in a summer when two popular initiatives wanted to ban the use of pesticides or financially reward non-usage and thus wastage of food on the field. A current study by Agroscope once again confirms: A total renunciation of pesticides would result in crop failures of up to 47 percent. That means: More imports where imports are possible. Where no replacement can be obtained, second-class goods come onto the shelves or shelves remain empty. For consumers, scarcity also means higher prices.

Potato blight: Using the resistance of wild potatoes
Potato blight is one of the most dangerous potato diseases. According to estimates, it causes potato crop losses of about 20 percent annually. Both organic and conventional farming require the use of pesticides in order to prevent substantial losses as a result of fungal diseases. Reducing the amount pesticides used requires research and innovation. Agrobiotechnology can be used to add a gene that is resistant to blight to the potatoes. The use of pesticides can be reduced to a minimum. Another advantage is that resistant varieties also protect plants when farmers are unable to traverse their fields in order to avoid harming the soil, as was the case this wet summer.

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