'˜Rogue' seed potatoes putting Scottish crops at risk

Only six years after it hit the headlines, it seems that English seed potatoes are being planted in Scottish fields, with the latest figures showing that 18 ware crops north of the Border were planted with such seed in 2016.

'Imported' seed potatoes carry the risk of disease. Picture: Contributed
'Imported' seed potatoes carry the risk of disease. Picture: Contributed

The practice is not illegal under EU plant health regulations as long as the crops are certified but it carries a huge risk of importing exotic bacterial diseases such as brown rot and ring rot.

This is especially the case if the seed has been once-grown in England from stocks sourced in the Netherlands or elsewhere in Europe. Once these diseases become established in the environment, they are all but impossible to eradicate.

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Colin Herron, of McCains Foods GB, said: “We have enough to deal with in Scotland in terms of a challenging climate but we do have the huge advantage of freedom from certain notifiable diseases. It is vital that Scottish growers use only seed sourced in Scotland from growers in the safe haven scheme. The last time this was an issue was in 2010 and once the problem was pointed out it was dealt with efficiently. It is disappointing to see the problem creeping back in again.”

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The growers and companies involved this time are different from in 2010. Although the varieties and growers are not revealed, 2016 figures show of the non-Scottish grown seed, one stock was sourced in Northern Ireland, three were sourced from Northumberland, in the protected region of England, and four from the non-protected region of England.

This last stock, which was used in 12 of the 18 crops, poses the biggest risk according to Herron. Three of the four stocks are understood to have come from a farm which is not in the industry approved Safe Haven Scheme. The major worry is that the stocks could have been multiplied up from stocks imported from Europe. Even indirect contact with such crops through grading or planting machinery is enough to transfer bacterial diseases.

Gerry Saddler, head of potatoes at regulatory and monitoring body Science & Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA), said: “Careful sourcing is one of the only ways to keep exotic diseases at bay. It is not only brown rot and ring rot which are the worries. There are blackleg pathogens on the continent which we don’t have here and wouldn’t want to see introduced.”

SASA has a monitoring system which requires importers to notify consignments. These are then routinely inspected for dickeya solani one of the more devastating blackleg type organisms. Dickeya has been a huge problem in the Netherlands and has proven very difficult to control.

Alistair Melrose, Scottish seed potato specialist and chairman of AHDB potato’s seed and export committee said: “It is very disappointing that this seems to have slipped below the radar.”