Potatoes in Great Britain

What do fish and chips, crisps, and bangers and mash have in common? They’re all staples of traditional British cuisine that feature the humble potato. English explorer Sir Francis Drake discovered potatoes during his first, and the world’s second-ever, circumnavigation of the world in the late 16th century in Latin America. He brought them back to England and they have been a mainstay in British diets ever since.

Potato grower Ian Spinks collects a sample of potatoes from a silo at Grove Farm in Langham, Norfolk, England.

The Challenge

Potatoes are farmer Ian Spinks most valuable crop, but they are also the riskiest to grow. “Seventy-five percent of a potato is water, so you’re essentially trying to store a little bag of water with skin around it.” The biggest problem is attack from potato blight, he says. “You feel disappointed when you lose crops because you worked so hard to get them to a certain point.” Ian isn’t alone; potato blight has plagued British farmers for generations, triggering the infamous Irish potato famine in the 1840s.

A plate of fish and chips at No1 Cromer in Cromer, Norfolk, England.

The Solution

Plant scientist Jonathan Jones is using plant biotechnology to combat crop losses caused by potato blight. In particular, his team is developing a potato with built-in resistance to blight. “By identifying and combining a resistance gene for blight, farmers will be able to plant varieties of potatoes that are less likely to be wiped out by the disease.” He says the benefits could be huge in England and beyond. “Worldwide the potato late blight costs about $3.5 billion a year with very substantial losses in both developing and developed countries.”

Shannen Little eats fish and chips from No1 Cromer on Cromer's pier, Norfolk, England.