From origins in the cool altitudes of the Andes, the potato is not well suited to the extreme temperatures or flooding brought on by climate change. Plant scientists are breeding ‘super-spuds’ able to endure harsher environmental conditions.
The humble potato was first domesticated near Lake Titicaca in present-day Peru at least 8 000 years ago, and went on to sustain the great cities of the Inca empire. By the mid-16th century, it had left the Andes and crossed the Atlantic to Europe where it was introduced to Ireland in 1589 by English adventurer and courtier, the enigmatic Sir Walter Raleigh. Highly productive and extremely popular, the potato plant soon went on to become a staple in many European countries.
Today, it is the fourth most commonly grown food crop globally, after rice, maize, and wheat. Nonetheless, it remains vulnerable to waterlogging and heat stress, conditions that it did not evolve to withstand in its original high-altitude home in the Andes. Now, with pollution upending Europe’s climate, the potato has to confront these dual nemeses with increasing regularity.
‘Some potatoes are quite tolerant of drought stress, but they all have big problems with heat and flooding,’ says Dr Markus Teige, plant scientist at the University of Vienna who is leading the ADAPT project. ADAPT is developing new strategies to ensure potato crop productivity remains stable in the growth conditions of the future.
Plants afflicted by excessive heat stop producing sugars—preventing the development of tubers—and then race to flower early. This is an excellent strategy for wild potatoes to ensure the survival of the species under challenging conditions, but it delivers low yields to farmers.
A recent survey of over 500 European potato growers revealed that drought and heat were seen as the main repercussions of climate change on potatoes, followed by pests, disease, and heavy rains.
Some potato varieties are better than others at resisting environmental stresses, which suggests that there is potential for plant breeders to genetically improve the European spud to be more tolerant.
The ADAPT project brings together four potato breeders and ten research institutions to investigate how some potatoes resist stresses.
‘We want to understand stress acclimation at the molecular level,’ said Dr Teige, ‘To develop markers for breeding stress tolerant potatoes.’
Potato breeding is especially challenging because of its complex genetics. The European variety contains millions of letters of DNA, each in four copies, on twelve distinct strands (chromosomes).
Genetic markers are akin to signposts that signify important stretches of DNA associated with a desirable trait, such as better tolerance to heat.
‘A relatively small range of potato genetics was brought to Europe,’ said Dr Dan Milbourne, potato researcher at Teagasc in Ireland, a state agricultural research organisation. Therefore, it might be possible to import new traits.
ADAPT scientists have grown around 50 potato varieties in different combinations of stress conditions in various European locations. In parallel, they have run experiments in greenhouses, where varieties are grown under defined conditions in a high-tech facility in the Czech Republic.
The plants are photographed and measured daily to record how much water they use, and their rates of photosynthesis and growth. This data can reveal how they are influenced by stress and highlight signposts (genetic markers) in the potato genome important for stress responses.
The signposts save time and money for future breeding programmes. ‘If a marker is associated with a specific trait, then, when you grow a seedling, you extract the DNA and look for the marker,’ said Dr Teige. The old way was to allow the plant to grow and wait to see if the desired trait was present.
Saving time in plant breeding is a huge deal. ‘It takes about 12 years to produce a potato variety,’ said Dr Milbourne. And he should know, because last year, his organisation was involved in the release of Buster, a new variety of potato resistant to a type of nematode worm that can severely damage potato crops.
In Ireland, potatoes must be sprayed up to 20 times during a growing season to protect against late blight. Blight has an historical significance in Ireland as it caused potato crop failure in the 1840s which triggered a disastrous famine that decimated the population.
Meanwhile, Europe is seeking to lessen reliance on chemical sprays, with the European Commission recently proposing that pesticide use be cut in half by 2030. To reduce dependence on spraying, more pest-resistant potatoes will be needed.
Dr Milbourne is part of a project called PotatoMASH, which devised a way of scanning the genetic variation across the genome of potato varieties in an inexpensive manner. The method can diagnose the presence of target diseases and pest resistance genes in potatoes by sampling only stretches of very variable DNA, which is significantly less expensive than traditional methods of identifying genetic markers.
New software developed at ILVO (Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) in Belgium, identifies areas of DNA where there are subtle differences between varieties.
It is single differences in the DNA code that are most interesting to breeders, explained Dr Milbourne. Potato breeding will be accelerated by identifying signposts for these areas.
‘Instead of testing thousands of individuals by infecting them with a disease and following their response,’ said Dr Milbourne, ‘I can just click out a small bit of leaf material about the size of my fingernail and test it for these markers, which can tell me whether a gene is present or absent.’
This is an important advance in the push to develop potatoes resistant to pests and diseases and able to withstand the vagaries of our future climate, while not sacrificing yield.
Crucially, it will not be a matter of breeding just one super-spud, because consumer tastes for potatoes vary widely from country to country, and there will be plenty of new potato varieties needed for the future.
‘We are looking at moving from feeding 7 billion people to between 11 and 13 billion over the next several decades,’ said Dr Milbourne.
‘We’re going to have to double production, without increasing the amount of land we farm, while also facing climate change, which could also deplete the land we have available for agriculture.’
Part of the solution is to boost the resilience of staple crops—such as potatoes—to extremes such as high temperatures, pests, and diseases, while relying less on pesticides. The race is on.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
G20 summit must formulate plan for Global South climate change threat
The G20 summit in India must have a “concrete plan” for “scaled-up” green financing for the Global South as a critical strategy to combat climate change, affirms the founder of one of the world’s largest independent financial advisory, asset management and fintech organizations.
The comments from deVere Group’s Nigel Green comes as leaders of the Group of 20 top industrialised and developing countries will gather this weekend in New Delhi for a summit that will celebrate the end of India’s 12-month G20 presidency.
He says: Climate change is no longer a distant threat; it is a present reality. Rising global temperatures, extreme weather events, melting ice caps, and sea-level rise are already affecting communities, ecosystems, and economies worldwide.
“The Global South, comprising developing nations with limited resources, bears a disproportionate burden in this climate crisis, despite contributing minimally to greenhouse gas emissions.
“As such, the leader of the G20 – the richest countries in the world – must use the summit starting in India this week to formulate a concrete plan for scaled-up green financing to help the Global South tackle the biggest issue of our time.
“A failure to do this could, ultimately, have catastrophic consequences for our planet and its communities.”
Green financing encompasses a range of mechanisms designed to support sustainable, environmentally friendly projects that mitigate climate change and enhance resilience.
These include investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, climate adaptation, sustainable agriculture, and conservation efforts.
“One of the major challenges faced by the Global South is access to financial resources needed for climate action. Developing nations often lack the financial capacity to invest in green projects without incurring significant debt,” says the deVere CEO.
“The G20 summit must play a pivotal role in bridging this financial gap by prioritising green financing and creating mechanisms to make it more accessible.”
G20 countries, being the largest economies in the world, must also “commit to increasing in a considerable way their financial contributions to international climate finance mechanisms. These funds are essential for providing support to developing nations in their efforts to mitigate emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change,” he notes.
Nigel Green goes on to add that the G20 summit should also serve as a platform for fostering collaboration between developed and developing nations.
This collaboration can take various forms, including knowledge sharing, technology transfer, and capacity building.
In addition, to scale up climate action, it is crucial to engage the private sector. G20 countries can promote public-private partnerships and initiatives that attract private sector investment in green projects.
“This can be achieved through incentives, guarantees, or risk-sharing mechanisms that make investments in sustainability more appealing to businesses.”
Innovation in financial instruments, such as green bonds and climate insurance, can unlock alternative funding sources for climate projects in developing nations.
The deVere CEO says: “The G20 summit must urgently encourage the development and adoption of such instruments to diversify funding options.”
The G20 summit in India presents a crucial opportunity to prioritize green financing for the Global South as a key strategy to combat climate change.
This summit can be a turning point in the global fight against climate change, demonstrating that unity, innovation, and commitment can drive transformative change toward a sustainable future for all.
“The urgency of climate action cannot be overstated, and the global community must act decisively.
“By committing to green financing, promoting collaboration, and bridging the financial gap, the G20 can lead the way in ensuring that all nations, particularly those in the Global South, have the resources and support they need to address the climate crisis effectively,” concludes Nigel Green.
To tackle wildfires, researchers in Europe team up with frontline forces
The EU is seeking to limit growing threats from blazes through the use of satellites, artificial intelligence and unmanned aerial vehicles.
By JACK MCGOVAN
Picture the following scene on the French island of Corsica: a local fire service uses a special surveillance camera to detect smoke in the area, quickly declare the outbreak of a blaze and mobilise a targeted response.
No, the action in the Biguglia municipality on Corsica’s northeastern coast wasn’t one of the many wildfire emergencies in Europe in 2023. Rather, it was a demonstration in October 2022 under an EU-funded research project to help regions in Europe counter threats from wildfires.
The Biguglia exercise used a smoke bomb to simulate the start of a fire and an extensive data network to trigger the rapid-reaction steps. It involved a service that has 1 300 firefighters who protect a population in this part of Corsica – the Mediterranean’s fourth-biggest island – that grows to around 400 000 in summer.
‘This first demonstration on Corsica was very positive,’ said Michael Pelissier, a firefighter who participated in the test.
As part of the EU project, called SAFERS, a similar firefighting exercise took place in the Piedmont region of Italy in February 2023 and two more trials are planned in Greece and Spain toward the end of this year.
‘After the next two demonstrations, we would like to push the management system forward in Europe and also beyond,’ said Claudio Rossi, who coordinates the project and is a senior researcher at an Italian research and innovation centre called the Links Foundation in the city of Turin.
With the help of EU funding, Europe’s research community is joining forces with firefighters to prevent fires from spreading or from happening at all. SAFERS is one of several EU projects to combine resources and know-how for tackling wildfires on the continent.
The focus of SAFERS is primarily on the use of satellites and artificial intelligence, or AI, to provide information that could help save lives and contain environmental damage.
‘The orchestrated utilisation of AI-powered solutions can increase resilience to forest fires,’ Rossi said.
Running for three and a half years through March 2024, the project features weather and hazard maps, fire-detection techniques, input from the general public and other tools to help local authorities prepare.
The ultimate goal is to build on the demonstrations in France, Greece, Italy and Spain and develop a comprehensive wildfire-control system for use around Europe.
By combining satellite images and other data, the system is intended to give first responders, decision-makers and ordinary people a clearer view of what’s happening and to facilitate the best responses.
Earth-observation data from the EU’s Copernicus programme is the primary source of information. This would be combined with data collected from smoke detectors, mobile applications, social media and forecast models.
A stark reminder that wildfires pose a growing threat in Europe came from news images in July 2023 of tourists fleeing flames on the Greek island of Rhodes and blazes spreading near the Sicilian city of Palermo.
A month later, attention turned to Spain and Portugal where blazes destroyed more than 16 300 hectares of land and forced the evacuation of villages and tourist accommodations.
The Biguglia municipality on Corsica was chosen as a SAFERS demonstration site in part because of a major fire there in 2017.
‘These last years we have noticed that, notably because of global warming, the summer season has a tendency to expand,’ said Pelissier, the firefighter. ‘So we are increasingly threatened by forest fires.’
The EU, which recently doubled its firefighting fleet of aircraft, has deployed more than 10 planes, 500 firefighters and 100 vehicles to help control and quell wildfires in Greece alone during the summer of 2023.
Over the past two months, the EU has also mobilised such support for Cyprus and – outside Europe – Tunisia. The moves were closely coordinated with national authorities.
Another EU-funded project – TREEADS – plans to feature drones, high-altitude balloons and satellites in a Europe-wide protection system.
‘We can’t only invest in fire trucks, helicopters or planes – we need to train our communities before the fires happen,’ said Kemal Sarp Arsava, who coordinates the project.
Arsava is a senior research scientist at Norway-based RISE Fire Research, which specialises in fire safety.
TREEADS aims to establish a comprehensive fire-management platform covering all three stages of wildfires – before, during and after a blaze breaks out.
Arsava is a native of Turkey who has also worked and studied in the US.
While in the US in late 2019, he was reminded of the international dimension of the wildfires threat by noticing the effect of Australia’s major outbreak of bushfires at the time.
Based then in the state of New Hampshire, Arsava said the blazes caused a slight haze in North America while primarily hurting air quality in South America.
‘The smoke from all of the wildfires in Australia basically crossed the Pacific Ocean and even changed the colour of the sky in America,’ he said.
Drones and balloons
TREEADS began in December 2021 and is due to run until end-May 2025.
The initiative brings together research institutes and companies from 14 European countries and Taiwan.
Besides Norway and Taiwan, the participants are from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Romania, Spain and Sweden.
The team of researchers is developing new technologies that’ll be tested in eight countries represented in the project.
One plan is to use drones and high-altitude balloons to detect blazes early, collect data for fire crews and even aid their actions by dropping fire-suppressant materials.
A four-layer approach is foreseen: low-altitude drones to locate fire hotspots; mid-altitude drones to drop fire suppressants; high-altitude balloons to provide a broader view; and satellites for the whole picture.
The trials are due to start early next year.
The project is also testing a virtual-reality headset to train firefighters who aren’t typically assigned to dealing with wildfires. That means teaching city firefighters to deal with blazes in different terrains should the need arise.
In total, more than 26 technologies including for fire protection and suppression will be enhanced, developed and verified in TREEADS.
‘These new technologies will make it easier to fight wildfires in the future,’ said Arsava.
Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Clothing manufacturers aim to get fashionable with greener practices
Clothes made from recycled textiles are emerging in Europe, highlighting new business opportunities that also reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.
By OFIA STRODT
Two textile plants in southern Finland point to the future of the industry.
At the sites in Espoo and Valkeakoski, pre-treated textile waste is turned into a cellulosic fibre that looks and feels like cotton.
In with the old
The activity is part of a research initiative called the New Cotton Project that received EU funding to help green the fashion business by recycling discarded textiles into new clothes. The three-year initiative is being extended by six months to March 2024 and builds on the notion of a “circular economy” in which goods get repaired, reused and recycled.
‘We want to show that a circular economy for textiles is possible in Europe,’ said Paula Sarsama, who coordinates New Cotton Project and is programme manager at Infinited Fiber Company in Espoo. The project uses the company’s recycling technology.
Discarded clothing is an environmental menace in Europe and globally.
Much of the waste is dumped into landfills in poorer parts of the world, discharging methane into the air and chemicals into the soil and groundwater. An estimated 5.8 million tonnes of textiles, or about 11 kilogrammes per person, are thrown away annually in the EU.
The EU is one of the world’s largest importers of clothing, with such shipments worth €80 billion in 2019.
While the EU gets most of its textiles from abroad, it also produces them in countries including Germany, Italy, France and Spain. Italy accounts for more than 40% of EU apparel production. Furthermore, European exports of discarded clothing have tripled in the past two decades.
The textile sector in Europe employs more than 1.5 million people and, with global textiles production predicted to rise 63% by 2030 from 2022, the waste would only increase without action.
The European clothing industry is seeking to break the cycle by moving towards more sustainable production and consumption. The shifts promise to open new business opportunities while aiding the environment.
Under New Cotton Project, the used textiles were obtained by a Dutch company named Frankenhuis that collects and organises them and is a partner in the initiative.
At Infinited Fiber, Sarsama and her colleagues work with numerous textile collectors and sorters. Most are located in northern Europe – an effort to keep transport routes, costs and emissions to a minimum.
‘In the future we hope to see textile circularity hubs, sourcing textiles locally and having different recycling and circular solutions on site,’ said Sarsama.
After being broken down, the waste is revived as the fibre that looks and feels like cotton and is named “Infinna”.
Hoodie and sweatpants
Actually making the clothes is the next step in the whole process.
German athletic apparel and footwear maker adidas and companies belonging to Swedish fashion retailer H&M are among the businesses that will use the Infinna fibre to design, manufacture and sell their own items.
A milestone for New Cotton Project was getting the first garments made from textile waste into the marketplace in 2022, according to Sarsama.
The retailers’ collections were limited product lines sold on the online market. Sarsama said this ensured a larger geographical spread than would have been the case from selling the items in a single European shop, however large.
The garments included an “adidas by Stella McCartney” set with a hoodie and sweatpants and an H&M denim jacket and pair of trousers.
All parts of the textile production chain – from initial design through to the shop floor – are represented in the project. The aim is to demonstrate that creating new clothing from cotton-rich textile waste can be commercially viable.
Collection is key
A key component in the transition to a circular economy is the organised collecting and sorting of textile waste.
Currently, less than 1% of materials used to produce new clothing comes from recycled textiles. As of 2025, EU law will require all 27 Member States to put in place a waste-collection system for household textiles and to comply with minimum recycling goals.
A big challenge is getting different parts of the sector to align on specifications, according to Sarsama.
For example, at the start of New Cotton Project, the partners planning new collections had some specifications for required materials that were unclear to the collecting entities. This prompted the two segments to improve their exchange of information.
Collaboration in the sector got a boost with the launch in early 2023 of the ECOSYSTEX platform. Bringing together 23 EU-funded initiatives – including New Cotton Project – that focus on textile sustainability, ECOSYSTEX aims to deepen cooperation among the partners.
Sorting it out
Another European project that is part of the platform has received EU funding to demonstrate how a system to transform household textile waste into a feedstock for new products could work.
Called T-REX – short for Textile Recycling Excellence – the initiative began last year and is due to run through May 2025. The focus is on grouping the waste. That’s because, to be repurposed on a large scale, discarded garments first need to be sorted according to their material.
‘A problem for the sorters is that items are made from different materials,’ said Elizabeth Martin, T-REX’s coordinator and a manager at adidas. ‘If we can harmonise the quality criteria for sorting practices, we can improve the scale-up as well.’
On top of this hurdle comes an unknown: how consumers will become part of the process, as they’ll be the ones discarding old garments.
Bringing this segment into the mix will require simpler textile waste-disposal options. That in turn will mean changes in labelling as well as in production.
‘The ways in which consumers are going to dispose of their household textile waste is going to play a role because this is going to affect the sorting process that follows,’ said Martin.
In a 2022 Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, the European Commission proposed to establish an EU “Digital Product Passport” – an electronic record that would be required by 2030 to encourage customers to make more educated choices in the first place.
Basic data such as a garment’s composition, sourcing, toxicity, maintenance options and disassembly possibilities would aid companies in adopting circular models.
The hope in Europe is that the knowledge generated through research initiatives like New Cotton Project and T-REX will also contribute to improving practices globally.
For any substantial change in the textile sector, international collaboration is needed.
‘Europe is currently at the forefront of this push for change, but these problems need to be solved at a global level,’ said Sarsama.
This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
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