This Thanksgiving, you may be helping yourself to a heaping pile of mashed potatoes.
But scientists at the University of Maine and other researchers are concerned it may be harder to get those same spuds in the future because of climate change.
“When temperatures are too high, potatoes often have quality problems,” said Dr. Gregory Porter, a Professor of Agronomy at the university.
To try to keep your french fries and kettle chips plentiful and tasty, Porter and his team are working on developing potato varieties that are more resistant to changing weather and other conditions that could cause smaller potato crops, defects in the potatoes or potato decay.
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“It’s become apparent to the group that we needed greater tolerance of heat stress and rainfall events,” he said.
A recent USDA grant will provide roughly $500,000 for this work, some of which is taking place in greenhouses, laboratories and research facilities in eastern and northern Maine.
However, some plant material will be sent to warmer weather environments like North Carolina for field evaluation since areas with hot and humid climates where some potatoes are grown could be highly susceptible to extreme warm and wet weather.
“North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, all of those areas are experiencing stress events,” said Porter.
To actually carry-out the research and develop these new potato varieties, “traditional cross-pollination” will be done in greenhouses at the University of Maine and other work will occur in Aroostook County fields and at facilities in Presque Isle, Maine.
Tests for texture and “tastes tests both formal and informal,” will occur with reviews returned potato industry experts as well as Porter himself from his own kitchen.
“If I take it home, try it and it isn’t good, then I’m very quick to cast them aside,” he said.
Porter expects some new climate change-toughened tubers could be ready for consumption within the next few years but other discoveries related to this research could be more applicable a decade from now.
Either way, it’s work he believes we can be thankful for this Thanksgiving as we mash, scallop and twice-bake our way through 2021.
“Potatoes are important parts of diets, they represent a diverse source of calories, they also have vitamins and potassium,” Porter explained adding that “personally I love potatoes, I’d hate to be without them.”