Research

It may be a while before robots and drones are as common as tractors and combine harvesters on farms, but the high-tech tools may soon play a major role in helping feed the world's rapidly growing population.

 

A potato extract that’s rich in beneficial compounds is looking very promising. In trials with mice, researchers at McGill University have found that this extract reduces weight gain and provides other important health benefits. Now, they hope to conduct clinical trials to see if the extract produces similar benefits in people.

In this research, Danielle Donnelly, a potato researcher in McGill’s department of plant science, has teamed up with Stan Kubow and Luis Agellon, who are both at McGill’s school of dietetics and human nutrition. The research had its beginnings in Donnelly’s research on genetic improvement of Russet Burbank, the number one processing cultivar in Canada.

Because Russet Burbank has limited fertility, traditional breeding techniques aren’t effective for developing improved lines. So, about 10 years ago, Donnelly and her research group developed a technique using tuber tissue to propagate plantlets that can differ genetically from the original tuber. These variants, called somaclones, can then be grown in the field and screened for various traits. Donnelly has produced about 800 Russet Burbank somaclones.

“I had been screening my somaclones of Russet Burbank for yield and processing characteristics after long-term storage, and doing the selections and realizing that the somaclone technology could be very helpful there,” Donnelly explains. “Then, in talking to Stan Kubow, I realized that we should also be looking at nutritional parameters because the processing industry, and the whole potato industry, needs to be more concerned about the health of their consumers.”

Donnelly and Kubow started collaborating on potato nutrient research. In one part of this research, they examined the mineral content of 16 cultivars, including chippers, fryers and table stock, grown at five locations. “We found there was a lot of variation between the cultivars. Potatoes are not created equal for minerals! Russet Burbank and Yukon Gold were particularly good,” Donnelly says.

They determined that one serving per day of Russet Burbank, Yukon Gold or Freedom potatoes provides a significant portion of the recommended daily intake for magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, iron, selenium and zinc.

In another part of their nutritional studies, Donnelly and Kubow determined the antioxidant levels in her top 25 somaclones that were best for yield and processing traits. In potatoes, antioxidant activity comes from vitamin C, a number of polyphenolics and other compounds. Out of the 25 somaclones, they selected the four that had the highest antioxidant activity plus a range of polyphenolic compounds.

From this screening and selection work, Donnelly currently has four advanced lines moving toward registration. She hopes to register the best one or two of those lines later this year. “All four lines have high yield, three of them do better than the Russet Burbank control in fry tests, and all have very high protein and high antioxidant capacity,” she notes.

Fat-fighting extract
In a different aspect of the potato nutrient research, Agellon, Kubow and Donnelly investigated the effects of potato polyphenols on diet-induced obesity. The possibility that eating polyphenols might control obesity may seem surprising, but obesity actually has a connection with inflammation. Research has shown that obesity results in low-grade chronic inflammation due to the reaction of certain cells to excess nutrients and energy.

As a first step, Kubow and Donnelly grew 12 different potato cultivars for several growing seasons and compared their polyphenolic contents. They found that Onaway and Russet Burbank had higher and more consistent polyphenol levels than the other cultivars.

Next, using these two cultivars, the researchers made an extract containing a mixture of potato polyphenols. “The extract concentrates the active ingredients, making it more likely to see the biological effects we were interested in,” Kubow explains. One dose of the extract has about 30 times the amount of polyphenols found in a single potato. The main polyphenol in the extract is chlorogenic acid, which has been shown to have anti-obesity effects in some situations.

Then the researchers conducted a feeding trial with mice to evaluate the effect of the extract. “The mice were fed a diet that is similar to what many North Americans consume; it is high in calories, high in fat, and high in sugar content. We wanted to see if these polyphenols, when given to mice that are ingesting this high-fat diet, would help in preventing obesity,” Agellon says.

One group of mice was fed just the high-fat diet. A second group was fed the high-fat diet plus the potato extract. And a third group was fed the high-fat diet plus an equivalent amount of a purified single polyphenol, either chlorogenic acid or ferulic acid.

“We were intrigued by a number of studies that tested single polyphenols reported to be active in some systems but that were not as effective when used in a purified form; it seems that the purified compound had lost its potency,” Agellon explains. “We wondered if the desirable effect associated with a food like potato and the polyphenols that it contains, is because of a combination of the different compounds in the food.”

Their hypothesis was that each individual polyphenolic compound produces a small benefit for a particular area of the body, like the liver, but multiple polyphenols ingested together affect multiple pathways, producing a synergistic effect with major health benefits.

Agellon says the extract’s benefits emerged quite quickly in the trial. “Midway through the 10-week study, we could see which of the groups had received the polyphenol extract. They had less weight gain and were much more active than the mice receiving the high-fat diet by itself.”

Kubow adds, “This effect wasn’t because the mice didn’t like the diet and didn’t eat it. They were eating as much or more of the high-fat diet [as the other groups of mice]. Normally, mice respond just like humans – if they eat a lot of fat, they gain a lot of body fat and body weight. But to our surprise, the extract had quite remarkable potency in inhibiting that, regardless of how much they ate.”

The individual polyphenols were not quite as effective as the extract in reducing weight gain, suggesting synergistic benefits from the mix of polyphenols in the extract.

The researchers are excited by the extract’s potential human health benefits. Agellon notes, “The extract could be a wonderful tool to help people suffering from obesity.” To move forward on this, they need to conduct clinical trials to assess the extract’s fat-fighting effect in people. “We’ve got a lot of data supporting this effect in animal trials and in some culture trials, but clinical trials are the key, critical step toward commercialization,” Kubow says.

Pollution protection
The researchers have also looked at the extract’s effect on another inflammation-related health problem: lung damage caused by air pollution. Kubow explains, “Inflammation is your immune system overreacting to various compounds, including pollutants. With air pollution, that overreaction causes damage in various tissues including the lungs. So our hypothesis was that the extract might be effective where people are overweight and exposed to pollutants at the same time.”

In this study, they fed two groups of mice a western-style diet, similar to the diet in the obesity trial but not quite as high-fat. For four weeks, one group was fed the high-fat diet, and the other group was fed the high-fat diet plus the extract. Then the mice were exposed to ozone for four hours, to replicate the effects of exposure to heavy smog. “We looked at their lungs 24 hours after that exposure because the body is continually overreacting with the inflammatory response. That allowed us to detect factors in the lungs associated with ozone damage and inflammation,” Kubow explains.

The results showed that the mice eating the potato extract had significantly less lung damage. “We think this study was an important first step to validate the use of this extract as a means of potentially having a supplement to combat air pollution, which would be the first such supplement,” Kubow says. “However, we need clinical trials for verification of the benefit in humans.”

Clinical trials are key
The researchers are currently seeking funding for clinical trials to see how well the extract fights obesity and lung damage in people. If those trials prove the extract’s effectiveness, then the extract could have commercial potential, for instance, as a dietary supplement or a cooking ingredient. So investment in the trials could be of interest not only to health agencies but also to the potato industry because of the extract’s value-added potential.

Donnelly sees a couple of ways the next steps in this research could help potato growers and processors. “First, there are the clinical trials, which would get a product out there. Secondly [with information on polyphenol levels in more cultivars] it could be that more potato growers could benefit because there is a lot of wasted potatoes – people growing small potatoes have big ones they can’t use, and big potato growers have little ones they don’t always know what to do with. It may be that some of these materials could be rescued from waste streams from processed potatoes. So there is a lot of potato that could be used for a product that no one has produced up until now, which is this extract.”

As well, a potato extract with proven health benefits might help enhance the health reputation of potatoes. Kubow says, “The public perception is that potato intake is bad for your weight, but we’re talking about potato decreasing the risk of overweight and obesity.”

 

March 7, 2016, Charlottetown, PEI – A research team has discovered that Prince Edward Island is exporting more than just potatoes.

It turns out that 95 per cent of the nitrates that are emptying into the Northumberland Strait are coming from this province. And of these, 91 per cent are coming from the Island's agriculture industry. READ MORE

February 12, 2016, Fredericton, NB – Bright pink and purple are the hot new fashion colours for Spring 2016, for potatoes.

Every year the federal government releases new kinds of potatoes to the marketplace: the spuds that eventually end up sprouting in our gardens, turning golden in our deep fryers and mushed under our mashers.

This year, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) has released 16 new kinds of potatoes, including one that may be better than the current standard French fry potato, the Russet Burbank. READ MORE

Feb. 3, 2016, Ontario – Eugenia Banks recently received the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association (OFVGA) 2016 Award of Merit at the OFVGA annual general meeting in January.

Banks hails from Santiago, Chile where she completed her bachelor of science degree at the University of Chile. She studied further at the University of Guelph where she completed her masters and PhD. Her connection to the potato industry started in 1990, when she began working for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) as a potato specialist.

In those years, Banks made herself available to growers whenever needed, tirelessly identifying problems with unique solutions. Her first battle was against the Colorado potato beetle, which was resistant to all pesticides that were registered to control it. For five years, Banks and potato growers would use propane flamers, vacuums, and plastic line trenches to control the pest into control by 1995. What started as very little knowledge of the potato industry grew exponentially over the years with dedication, commitment, and a desire to learn. Today, Banks is a respected potato expert. Her most successful endeavours include the evaluation of new potato varieties through practical field trials, tackling the aggressive strain of late blight that originally caused the Irish Famine, scout training days, and the Ontario Potato Conference held annually.

“Each year brought new challenges, but by working together we got positive results,” Banks said of her work with farmers in a press release. “Ontario potato growers are knowledgeable, innovative, hard working, and resilient. I will share this award with them.”

December 3, 2015, Gainesville, FL – University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researchers have found an irrigation method that uses 50 per cent less water than traditional systems to grow potatoes.

The system is called “hybrid centre pivot irrigation.” With this method, about two-thirds of the water used to help grow potatoes is sprayed from above ground, similar to natural rainfall, and about one-third comes from under the ground – a traditional method known as “seepage irrigation.”

UF/IFAS assistant professor Guodong “David” Liu led a group of UF/IFAS researchers in testing the impact of hybrid centre pivot irrigation on soil moisture and temperature at a Manatee County, Florida potato farm.

The method saved about 55 per cent of water in a three-year trial at the farm. Additionally, researchers found no loss in crop yield using less water. Liu said he now is convincing growers to use centre pivot irrigation with fertigation, in which all the water comes from above-ground sprinklers. Scientists say they may save one third more water.

“By using center pivot irrigation, we saved approximately one billion gallons of irrigation on the private farm during the last three growing seasons,” he said.

Growers typically use seepage irrigation because the system doesn’t need extra equipment, said Liu, a faculty member in the UF/IFAS Department of Horticultural Sciences. But seepage uses too much water, he said. Centre pivot irrigation equipment costs about $1,000 per acre, but it can be used for many years.

Invented by a Colorado farmer in 1940, centre pivot irrigation uses equipment that rotates around a pivot, thus watering the crop with sprinklers.

Commercial potato producers in Southwest Florida – home to the Manatee County where Liu’s team conducted the study – use an average of 543,086 gallons per acre, Liu said. Centre pivot irrigation uses only 230,812 per acre.

The new UF/IFAS study is published in the journal Agricultural Water Management.

 

Nov. 19, 2015, Ottawa – The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) needs producer volunteers to participate in focus groups that examine the National Occupational Standards (NOS) for the commodities of apples, crops, honey, mushrooms, potatoes and turf.

These standards will then be further developed into meaningful tools and inform training programs based on what producers indicate are the best ways of doing business. To date, 20 National Occupational Standards have been developed with input from 270 industry stakeholders for the pork, sheep, aquaculture, beef and poultry commodities.

Producers can find dates, times and places for focus groups across Canada at http://www.cahrc-ccrha.ca/node/2251. Participant expenses will be reimbursed.

The research is in support of two projects being conducted by CAHRC: the National Agricultural Occupational Framework and Labour Market Support (NAOF) and the Canadian Agriculture and Agri-food Workforce Action Plan (WAP).

NAOF is an in-depth study of the jobs and skills involved in today’s agricultural workforce with specific focus on 10 commodities. The information gathered through this research is being used to develop training and support tools for producers and workers, as well as a curriculum mapping tool that will assist educators to enhance and develop new curriculum that reflects the modern work done on farms today. In addition, this research is helping to develop a job matching tool that links employers with qualified job seekers and student interns.

The WAP examines issues of industry labour management and shortages. It is led by the national Labour Task Force and functions as a solution-oriented forum made up of industry representatives from across Canada’s agriculture and agri-food sectors. The consultative process has identified two recommendations: one is to increase the supply of agricultural labour (skilled and unskilled workers) and the other to improve the knowledge and skills of workers already in the industry. To date, 65 organizations are confirmed as implementation partners, lending support, credibility and a sense of urgency to addressing labour issues for the industry.

Industry participation is the cornerstone of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council’s research with input, direction and guidance for all activities sought from agriculture and agri-food employers, employees, associations, education, and government at regional, provincial and national levels. Likewise, product development is done with similar consultations to ensure quality, accuracy and relevance of prepared solutions. This requires grass root participation in consultations at all stages.

 

Oct. 30, 2015, Alberta – Using potato peels and culls considered waste by Alberta’s potato-processing industry, University of Alberta researchers have created a starch-based bioactive film that is both eco-friendly and rich in antioxidants.

With applications for both the food packaging and cosmetic industries, the new bioactive film is a green alternative to traditional petroleum-based plastics and possesses added advantages, said Marleny Aranda Saldaña, a process engineer and associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food & Nutritional Science who led the research team.

“Development of antioxidant and antimicrobial bioactive films can improve product shelf life and safety,” she said.

“Potato peels have high phenolic content, a natural compound for plant protection, which you also find in apple peels and grape peels, among others.”

Saldaña and her team, which includes Michael Gänzle, microbiologist and Canada research chair, and Thava Vasanthan, a cereal scientist, used subcritical fluid technology to extract phenolic compounds from the potato biomass. Traditional methods use methanol, a toxic solvent.

Subcritical fluid technology uses water above its boiling point and below its critical temperature, under pressure. In subcritical water medium, starch can be modified to influence the film’s properties, such as its tensile strength, elongation, and antioxidant and antimicrobial activity.

Saldaña’s team has already obtained an international Patent Cooperation Treaty application for the processing method and TEC Edmonton is in the process of commercializing the process. Currently, the team is testing antimicrobial activity. The next step is to test the films on packaging of ready-to-eat meat.

With international interest on whether the subcritical method would also work on cassava (the starchy root of a tropical tree), her team is also studying that possibility.

Another researcher in Saldaña’s lab is looking at adding nanoparticles on the films. Right now, there’s a maximum amount of antioxidants/antimicrobials that the film can hold, but with nanoparticles, more could be added and released strategically.

Meanwhile, Saldaña says, the overall goal is to achieve complete use of the available biomass. Her team, including visiting scientists from Brazil and China, also uses sub/supercritical water processing technology to obtain other value-added compounds and to gasify what’s left of the biomass residue to obtain hydrogen. That research is ongoing.

Saldaña’s research is funded by Alberta Innovates – Bio Solutions and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

The root-knot nematode is a parasitic roundworm that can infect about 2,000 plants and is one of the three most damaging parasitic nematodes to agricultural crops worldwide. Photo by UNH.

Sept. 14, 2015, Durham, NH – Roundworms that feed on plants cause approximately $100 billion in annual global crop damage. But a new way of disrupting the motility and reproduction of these plant parasitic nematodes discovered by a University of New Hampshire (UNH) scientist may one day provide farmers with a new way to safely manage these agricultural pests.

Aug. 21, 2015, Ghent, Belgium – Potato breeders must use a combination of natural resistance genes to develop new varieties that are less susceptible to blight, according to researchers.

Aug. 10, 2015, Barcelona, Spain – The humble spud is being credited with fuelling the extraordinary expansion of the brain in human evolution. The New Zealand Herald reports. | READ MORE

 

July 21, 2015, MB – The governments of Canada and Manitoba are investing more than $2 million over three years to support research and development projects in the province’s agriculture and agri-food sector and potato research is getting a share of the funding.

The funded projects cover a range of agricultural issues including animal and human health, on-farm production technologies and opportunities for value-added industries. Three projects of interest to the potato industry include the following:

  • The Manitoba Horticulture Productivity Enhancement Centre will receive $14,040 for a project to determine aerial spore counts of black dot and silver scurf in potato storages
  • Peak of the Market will receive $38,460 for a project to evaluate management strategies to control insecticide-resistant populations of Colorado potato beetle
  • Peak of the Market will also receive $41,525 in funding for a project looking at the influence of nitrogen on the yield and quality of Dark Red Borland, Sangre and Viking potato varieties

“By strategically investing in research and development, we can encourage new opportunities and a more diverse economy in rural areas,” said Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development Minister Ron Kostyshyn. “Manitoba’s agriculture and agri-food sector will certainly benefit from the findings of these projects. Adopting the new ideas generated from this work will lead to further economic growth in the province.”

In addition to the federal and provincial funding, applicants and funding partners are providing cash and in-kind contributions of approximately $3.6 million. Partners include agricultural businesses, commodity groups, the Western Grains Research Foundation and university and government researchers.

Projects are funded through Growing Innovation – Agri-Food Research and Development Initiative (GI-ARDI) under Growing Forward 2.

 

July 14, 2015 -A $1.4 million investment from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada will help Potatoes New Brunswick lead a national research effort to help improve potato yields and the export competitiveness of Canadian French fries.

This investment will enable Potatoes New Brunswick to work with other industry partners, Agriculture Canada scientists and universities to identify factors that limit potato yields. On-farm experiments will help overcome these limitations and recommend new tools and technologies to potato farmers across the country. 

Potatoes New Brunswick will work with a number of key national partners, including the P.E.I. Potato Board, McCain Foods Ltd., the Manitoba Horticulture Productivity Enhancement Centre, Dalhousie University, the University of Manitoba and the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Quebec City.

This investment is being made through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s AgriInnovation Program, a five-year, up to $698 million program under the Growing Forward 2 policy framework.

Potatoes New Brunswick is a non-profit, producer driven organization incorporated in 2006 that aims to enhance the competitiveness of the province’s potato sector.

 

 

July 10, 2015, New Brighton, MN – Calyxt, Inc., a Minnesota-based company focusing on developing healthier food products, recently announced it has started field trials of its cold storable potato.

Calyxt has previously validated in the greenhouse its potatoes developed by inactivating a single endogenous gene responsible for sugar accumulation when stored at cold temperatures. The multi-location field trials aim to provide the first proof of cold storability and reduced acrylamide content of field-grown potatoes.

“The development of potatoes that have improved cold-storage characteristics and healthier attributes positions Calyxt as a key player in the potato industry,” said Luc Mathis, CEO of Calyxt, Inc. “Initiating field validation of our potatoes is a key milestone for the French fries, potato chips and fresh market applications.”

 

June 10, 2015, Lethbridge, AB – A Lethbridge College instructor and researcher has received major funding to support an applied research project that aims to keep Alberta potato crops free of the devastating disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine.

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