Plant & Food Research’s Vaughn Bell has seen a lot of mealybugs in his time, but even he was stunned to see photos of infestations in Marlborough this past vintage.
The New Zealand potato industry is worth about $470 million, but the tomato-potato psyllid has severely affected the sustainability of the industry. Discovered in New Zealand in 2006 the insect, and its associated disease, has cost the industry about 5% of its value.
The psyllid can transfer a bacterium, known as Candidatus Liberibacter solanacearum (Lso), into the potato plant during feeding which affects growth and causes the disease zebra chip in potato tubers. Sugar accumulates in the tuber, which darkens unacceptably when the potato is fried. Potatoes are expected to generate export returns of $250 million by 2025.
Through the new funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, scientists at Plant & Food Research will research new control methods for the insect pest, and new cultivars with improved resistance to the psyllid or the zebra chip disease.
"This new funding signals new hope for the potato industry," says Champak Mehta, CEO of Potatoes New Zealand.
"The psyllid has gradually spread across the country since it was first discovered in 2006, and the costs and effort involved in controlling the insect, and the resulting disease, have added significant costs to growers."
New cultivars with resistance to the disease, and technologies to control the insect in the field, will allow the industry to get back on course.