By Mabell, Dave on August 14, 2017.
Alberta’s potato industry is worth more than $1 billion to our economy. But it’s threatened by a tiny bacterium
This year, a Lethbridge scientist reports, it hasn’t shown up.
“That’s good news,” says Dan Johnson, a biogeography professor at the University of Lethbridge. He explains the bacteria are linked with zebra chip disease – already affecting crops in the U.S., Mexico and New Zealand. It turned up as early as May in Idaho this year.
Potatoes infected by the bacteria develop unsightly black lines when they’re fried, making them unfit for sale. The bacteria are carried by an insect, the potato psyllid.
“We found hundreds of potato psyllids last year, but we have found under 10 so far this year,” Johnson says. “None have the bacteria that cause zebra chip.”
Last year, he points out, the insects were found in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. So this year, nearly 50 Alberta potato fields are being monitored. Sticky cards are placed on stakes, then examined under a microscope at the Lethbridge Research Centre.
Johnson, who’s been named co-ordinator of the nation’s potato psyllid and zebra chip monitoring program, is also a “visiting scientist” at the research station. DNA testing for the bacteria is undertaken there by scientist Larry Kawchuk, he says.
With more fields being monitored, Johnson says researchers can compare locations where the insects are found to the area’s weather patterns and to the natural enemies they may face.
The Canadian monitoring program was launched in 2013 with the co-operation of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, he says. It’s now backed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Potato Growers of Alberta, the Canadian Horticultural Council and Growing Forward 2 – a federal-provincial partnership – as well as the provincial government.
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